By Debra J. Saunders / syndicated columnist
It’s been close to two years since Congress closed its doors to the public to slow the spread of covid-19. While states and local governments are discarding their covid-19 rules and shutdowns, the U.S. Capitol remains off-limits to the general public.
With most Americans back at work, eating out and gathering in large crowds, it’s time for Congress to join the party and welcome the American people back into “The People’s House,” not float the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as reason to keep the public outside.
Toward that end, Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., introduced a resolution to reopen the Capitol Building by April 4.
“It’s time for Capitol Hill to return to normal,” Hagerty wrote in The Tennessean. “The openness of the halls of Congress and public participation in the legislative process have always been the hallmarks of American democracy, which is why this inexplicable lockdown must end.”
Senate Democrats held up the resolution at first but then joined Republicans and passed the measure by unanimous consent.
At the moment, visitors must go through a senator’s or member’s office to be escorted inside the building.
The House has not passed such a measure.
“This is not a facile issue,” Mark Harkins of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University told me.
“Absolutely we should have the Capitol open for people to see,” Harkins added. “It’s a democracy, and we need to see our members in their working environment. However, we need to make sure that we do it in a way that is safe for all, including visitors, the staff and members.”
He fears a repeat riot.
The halls of power used to be clogged with students on a pilgrimage to Washington and activists flitting from one office to the next trying to push or kill legislation. Now those halls are essentially “appointment only.”
Lobbyists can’t lobby in the lobbies.
Staffers have tried to make up for the vacuum with resources like visitthecapitol.gov that provide virtual tours, but that’s not enough.
“No one will downplay the seriousness of what happened” on Jan. 6, 2021, wrote Paul Miller, chairman of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, “but even after 9/11, Capitol Hill reopened quickly.”
A reminder: Lobbyists don’t just represent the causes you hate; they also include activists in service of causes you support.
The Capitol Police are short-staffed to the tune of about 400 officers, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger recently told Fox News. The workforce is comprised of more than 2,300 officers and civilians.
Hagerty is open to a roll-out plan with a reduced number of entrances while staffing is low.
There is talk of using the National Guard and private security guards to augment Capitol Police, as well as limiting the number of entrances open to the public until staffing hits the mark.
Safety? That was the reason House Democrats held onto their mask mandate until they realized how bad they would look wearing masks at President Joe Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address.
“Last year, covid-19 kept us apart,” Biden told lawmakers that night. “This year, we are finally together again.”
Together? Hail. Hail. The gang’s all here; but the gang doesn’t include the rest of us chickens.
Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Email her at email@example.com.