When a deranged gunman killed two Capitol Police officers in 1998, this tragic event rightly shook Washington. In the name of safety of officers and members of Congress, the public’s ability to freely access the Capitol complex was significantly curtailed.
Then 9/11 happened. Millions of dollars were spent to make sure the “citadel of democracy” resembled an actual fortress. More restrictions immediately followed, restrictions that exist to this day.
And, yet, for all of these efforts, last week a mob, incited by the president and enabled by many members of Congress inside the Capitol, gained access to disrupt an important moment for democracy by breezing past police barricades, breezing through doors and even breaking in through windows.
There is doubtless going to be a necessary and vigorous debate about what went wrong and how to prevent tragedies like this one that resulted in the death of at least five people, including a Capitol Police officer. Already, the House has taken a reasonable step of installing magnetometers to ensure that weapons are not brought onto the floor. But there is a great probability this insurrection will also mean access by the public and the media to the “people’s house” is further restricted.
This is its own tragedy.
In a democracy, there is always a tension between the need for safety and security and the protection of our rights as citizens. Such measures are sometimes derided as “security theater,” meant to make us feel safer without actually making us safer. But the efficacy of these barriers aside, we must grapple with the question of what happens to our democracy when we no longer have access to our democratic institutions.
For starters, this will further isolate our members of Congress from the people they are supposed to represent. If we the people cannot peacefully exercise our constitutional right to “redress our grievances,” if members of Congress no longer fear even an ounce of accountability, what do we become?
Speaking as a public interest lobbyist with 40 years of experience, many of these measures have been a terrific loss for advocates who cannot otherwise gain access and influence through playing the money-in-politics game. With each successive wave of increased security measures, getting face-to-face interactions with members without paying for them through fundraisers or exercising influence for private meetings becomes much more difficult. Begging for scheduled appointments — often denied or outright ignored — ends up being the only alternative. Individual constituent visits and group “lobby days” could also be stifled.
For public interest advocates, the ability to go into the Capitol, hang outside the House or Senate floor and talk to representatives and senators as they entered and left the chambers was invaluable. In fact, many of their most important interactions happened this way, rather than in a sit-down meeting in a member’s office. But that ability has largely disappeared. And with it, an important tool for the American people to have their voice heard. They may end up paying the greatest price if their advocates cannot effectively advocate.
Will the Capitol start to look like the fenced-off White House? A temporary barrier has already been erected. What if it stays there for good? Will all peaceful public access to the House and Senate office buildings be cut off? Fearing that reaction is unfortunately all too real.
Watching senators being escorted back onto the floor by armed guards was a gut punch to American democracy and a further blow to the image of our leadership around the world. It can’t become the norm. It will be important to closely examine how things got out of hand on Jan. 6 and how the security failed. Those responsible — both internally and externally — should be held accountable. The Capitol absolutely must be secured against further desecration.
But in that process, we must ensure that Congress’ reaction does not go overboard or result in the institutions of democracy being permanently walled off by armed guards.
It’s our house. We must never lose sight of that fact.
Meredith McGehee is the executive director of Issue One, a crosspartisan political reform group in Washington.