House members now screened for weapons when entering chamber

Complaints about new security system already pouring in

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., attends a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House chamber on Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., attends a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House chamber on Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 12, 2021 at 5:51pm, Updated at 9:44pm

Magnetometers have been installed outside the House floor for the first time ever, the latest fallout from last week’s violent attack on the Capitol in which insurrectionists breached both the House and Senate chambers.

“Effective immediately, all persons, including members, are required to undergo security screening when entering the House chamber,” reads a memo from the Office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms.

Metal detectors were erected outside the chamber Tuesday afternoon on the second floor of the Capitol, where House members are usually able to move freely, in large groups and without scrutiny.

Lawmakers have been warned that a “failure to complete screening or the carrying of prohibited items could result in denial of access to the chamber.”

While magnetometers scan staff, visitors, media and all other entrants at every single external door of the Capitol and office buildings, lawmakers bypass those perimeter checkpoints, stepping around the machines and usually giving a wave to the Capitol Police officers at their station. Now they will need to go through them to access the floor of the House.

The additional security also comes after three House GOP freshmen, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, have made clear their intention to carry their own firearms wherever they please.

A 1967 regulation exempts members of Congress from a federal law banning firearms on the Capitol grounds. The weapons are still prohibited on the floor.

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“Members are reminded that pursuant to the firearms regulations that Members received on opening day, firearms are restricted to a members’ office,” reads the SAA memo.

Cawthorn didn’t adhere to that guidance on Jan. 6, telling Smoky Mountain News that when the violent mob breached the Capitol, he had his firearm with him.

He pointed out that his evacuation was more isolated and less protected by Capitol Police due to being in a wheelchair and needing an accessible route to safety.

“Fortunately, I was armed, so we would have been able to protect ourselves,” Cawthorn told the news site.

Earlier this year, Boebert led a letter signed by more than 80 Republicans urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi and GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to stick with the 1967 regulations and not impose stricter limits on Capitol grounds.

“If Members can’t carry on Capitol grounds, they can’t protect themselves in D.C. while making their way to and from their offices to perform their official duties,” the lawmakers wrote. “The ‘last-mile’ transition of self-protection is critical.”

The reviews are in

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said Tuesday night that the magnetometers were securing the wrong perimeter.

“This is bulls---,” he said to Capitol Police officers stationed at the new screening site. Davis also took his complaints to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, marching up to the Maryland Democrat while he was talking to reporters and telling him that valuable resources were being diverted from real threats and pointing out that Republicans were not consulted on the major security change.  

Freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene submitted to the additional search Tuesday night, which included taking off her shoes and being wanded by a Capitol Police officer.

But during her screening, which lasted about two minutes, the Georgia Republican pointed to journalists present nearby, telling the police, “All the media and all the liars and them, they’re not great.”

Meanwhile, Arkansas Republican Steve Womack was observed exclaiming “Get back” and “Don’t touch me” as he went through the new screening Tuesday. He said the new process would cause chaos during votes when many members want to access the floor at once. 

“You are creating a problem you do not understand the ramifications of,” he told Capitol Police.

Media screening ramped up

Magnetometers are also being installed on the third floor to put members of the media through additional screening before entering the chamber to cover action in the House.

The process for obtaining press credentials to cover Congress requires an application by full-time, paid correspondents of recognized news organizations. Journalists are granted a hard pass if their application is accepted.

Everyday reporters, press credential in-hand, already go through a magnetometer, staffed by several Capitol Police officers, to gain entry into the Capitol.

The journey to the House Daily Press Gallery includes at least one more checkpoint with officers usually checking IDs. Now, those who have been vetted to access the press gallery will have to undergo an added layer of scrutiny to do their jobs.

While COVID-19 has left the visitor galleries empty, additional screening was added for tourists entering the chamber in 2016 and 2017.

Mask compliance fines

The sergeant-at-arms memo on security also included a reminder that lawmakers could be removed from the House floor or barred entrance if they do not wear a mask.

Under new regulations, noncompliance with the mask requirement on the House floor would result in a $500 fine for the first offense and $2,500 for the second offense, according to a senior House Democratic aide.

Members will not be allowed to use their office funds to pay the fine. Instead, the fines will be deducted from members’ paychecks.

The new enforcement and punishment mechanism was tucked into a House Rules resolution governing the consideration of Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin’s measure calling on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and seek to declare President Donald Trump unfit for office.

The enforcement measure comes as three members have tested positive for COVID-19 since Wednesday’s chaos after hundreds of members and staff crowded into a hiding place where some Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks.

Lindsey McPherson and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.