The Architecture of Fear Has Already Made Congress Worse

Tight security harms the daily functioning of the legislative branch.

The U.S. Capitol behind a fence.
May-Ying Lam / Redux

Even after the 7,000 National Guard troops currently deployed around the United States Capitol pack up following the impeachment trial, the Hill will not be returning to normal. “We must harden this campus,” House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett warned in a closed Appropriations Committee session late last month. Yogananda Pittman, the acting chief of the Capitol Police, recently called for “vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure.” Those plans—prompted by the January 6 riot that is now the subject of a presidential-impeachment trial—would include expanding the perimeter around Congress by several blocks to encircle House and Senate office buildings; adding permanent fencing; and positioning rapid-response forces around the complex.

These steps would come on top of the concrete jersey barriers installed after the Oklahoma City bombing, and the pop-up vehicle ramparts and K-9 patrols added after 9/11. With those visible fortifications as a backdrop, observers of the January 6 mob attack slid easily into a Western Front vocabulary; they reported a storming, an incursion, and finally a “breach.”

Within living memory, the Capitol was a true public building, nearly unguarded, a sociable and disorderly place. As a congressional aide in the 1980s, I saw how Congress operated before security became an overriding concern, and I remember the day it all changed. Before November 7, 1983, all 10 of the Capitol building’s grand entrances were open to visitors. The Senate was supposed to be in session that evening. By sheer luck, members had concluded their business, and a crowded reception nearby had ended, when a bomb exploded not far from the Senate chamber.

The explosion triggered a tightening of security—which in turn changed the legislative process, and not for the better. The goal of a terror attack is to provoke a security overreaction. Successful terror delegitimizes the authority it attacks, revealing it to be fearful and propped up by force. The United States, with its abundant military-security resources, falls for it every time.

When I started, the year before, you did not walk through metal detectors to enter the Capitol. No one checked your purse or credentials.  Most congressional staff and service personnel displayed no credentials. I was one of thousands of underpaid staffers, most of us in our 20s, whose main qualification was that we came from the state our boss represented. We carried an ID card, but it was mainly for getting into the short line at the cafeteria and checking out books from the Library of Congress.

A legislator’s personal office in those days afforded no sanctuary from the public. No family road trip to Washington, D.C., would have been complete without a visit to the Air and Space Museum and a snapshot with at least one senator. Constituents made themselves at home in the anteroom alongside reporters, lobbyists, and the occasional protester. They felt entitled to have a word with their elected officials, and they did. My boss, a representative from southern Indiana, had become a respected voice on national security and foreign affairs. One afternoon a church group from the city of Seymour sat in the reception area and attempted small talk with a delegation of contras, the right-wing guerrillas from Nicaragua.

Legislators and their staffers were far more routinely exposed than they are now to events outside their office doors. In the mid-1980s, as the problem of homelessness intensified in the United States, people without permanent quarters would huddle around steam grates on the Capitol grounds in winter, and some would come inside at the end of the workday to see whether the reception tables had any food to offer. On warmer days, we staffers would take our lunch onto the lawn or the rooftop terrace of the Rayburn House Office Building and picnic there along with the demonstrators, the families from the Midwest, and the dog walkers from residential neighborhoods right next to the official buildings.

It was not a more innocent time than today. My boss received death threats, a few every year, usually by phone or mail. Each time, an FBI agent would come over and collect the evidence. We heard from conspiracy theorists who did not need Q to tell them that the federal government was illegitimate and allied with Satan. One tetchy group of tax resisters from Jackson County would write, call, and stand up at every public meeting to explain that the Northwest Ordinance was illegal and therefore changes to the Constitution ratified after 1787—especially the Sixteenth Amendment, permitting the income tax—were void. The boss would run his hand across his graying crew cut and joke that 1787 was just a little before his time. But, he would stress, I know the people who work in the county IRS office, just as you do. They are good people, not trying to be unfair to anyone, and would it really be in your best interest to refuse to even file a tax return? Retail politics 101: Keep it personal; focus on results, not ideas.

The Capitol was a microcosm of the American community, a place where politics in its exuberant dimensions was practiced in daily chance encounters. It could be tiring. One reason so much legislative business was conducted in the cafeteria, cloakroom, barbershop, or handball court was that members were hiding from their constituents, who were waiting at the office or roaming the halls looking for them. When he had work to do, my boss would call to ask if the coast was clear. In a pinch, his receptionist would rise from her desk and ask if anyone wanted to see the atrium (“You can’t miss that; it’s right over here.”), creating enough of a diversion for him to slip in and close the door.

When Laura Whitehorn and Linda Sue Evans planted dynamite and a timer in the Senate cloakroom that day in November 1983, it was no breach, because no one had  challenged them in the first place. They might have been constituents looking to meet their senator. Instead, they were members of the May 19th Communist Organization, known as M19, a woman-led revolutionary cell dedicated to violent action against racism, sexism, and imperialism. A communiqué announced that the bombing was in retaliation for the U.S. invasion of Grenada two weeks before.

The bomb shredded furniture and paintings and blasted out windows. Had the Senate not finished debate early that night, many casualties might have occurred. Instead, the biggest injury was to Congress, and it was self-inflicted.

The Capitol entrances for guests were reduced to three, then to one. Visitors were required to register for a tour. Meetings with members were by appointment only. A new Capitol Visitor Center was built with a gift shop and cafeteria to manage the flow. Constituents were turned into tourists.

Security measures divided staffers into a hierarchy of belonging. By the end of the year, new rules were in place. ID cards were to be worn on a lanyard, visible at all times; green for 24-hour access to the building (committee members and top advisers) and red for access during normal working hours only. Lobbyists quickly recognized that those with green cards were the ones worth talking to, and reception invitations were doled out accordingly. Staffs became more self-contained, more status-conscious, a result of a change not in politics but in security design. Minor changes in symbols and spaces have lasting effects.

No longer obliged to find refuge from constituents, members of Congress spent less time with one another. Staying in the office became easier, and legislators and their staff could watch House proceedings on television. C-SPAN, which had begun cable distribution three years earlier, also became a way of speaking to the voters back home—the ones members saw less and less during the typical workweek. This was the context in which Newt Gingrich, the spiritual forebear of today’s Republican Party, began to craft a narrative of American society as polarized between isolated, corrupt insiders and angry, voiceless outsiders—an image he reinforced with “extensions of remarks” addressed directly to the camera from an empty House chamber.

If the new standard for security is that it must be ready to repel another attack by people as numerous and as determined as the January 6 rioters, Capitol Hill will be more a fortress than a forum. The very real threats to the safety of representatives—which come primarily from individuals, not organized groups—need to be defused at the source, by deterring, investigating, and prosecuting would-be assailants, not by erecting more barriers between the public and its leaders. The urbanist Jane Jacobs famously argued that neighborhood security relies on “eyes on the street”—that security in a public place comes from making it more public, not less. More eyes in the hallways would not have stopped the rioters, of course, but neither did the pop-up barriers installed before the riot or other fortifications already in place. “Target hardening” has assumed but not demonstrated value. It has done little to make schools safer from armed attackers, for instance.

In making plans for the future, the Architect of the Capitol—the agency responsible for maintenance and operation of the legislative complex—should bear in mind that new layers of security have a cost paid in sacrificed attachments and lost conversations. A new security infrastructure will disrupt the public’s ties to its elected representatives, and perhaps more importantly, those officials’ connections to one another. In Congress, a private conversation or an accidental meeting can lead to new laws. More isolation will mean more deadlock, but it is also bound to alter in unpredictable ways the content of legislation and Congress’s investigative and oversight functions. Already some members are asking for funds to hire extra security, and at least three Republican members have said they intend to carry concealed weapons on the House floor. These are not design elements that will foster the art of compromise. For Congress to work as a deliberative body, the impulse to remove risk must be balanced against the need for spaces where fraternization among elected officials can flourish, where the body politic can be its irrepressible self.