Capitol Hill Fencing & Washington, D.C.: Time to Bring It Down

A woman asks a U.S. National Guard soldier for directions along a protected fence line on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

We cannot have our Capitol closed off from the people in a permanent way, the way it is now.

You don’t have to live in the nation’s capital to admire the pristine Capitol building, which sits on Capitol Hill. So strong is the admiration for the Capitol that states throughout our country have copied the building for their own capitals. But since January 6, when a mob created a one-day insurrection, the Capitol area has been surrounded by a tall fence topped with razor wire. This razor wire should be taken down tomorrow even if the fencing itself stays a little longer. As for the fence itself, some, including acting Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman, have called for some permanent fencing. This is unnecessary, and would do long-term harm to the Capitol and its surrounding community. We cannot have our Capitol closed off from the people in a permanent way, the way it is now.

The fence is more than an overreaction, one that makes the United States look like a totalitarian regime trying to keep its own people out. It represents a blind failure to analyze what, in fact, occurred on January 6 at the Capitol and why. The insurrection was the opposite of a spontaneous demonstration. No less than the former president himself, Donald Trump, had promised to make January 6, the day Congress would certify the vote of the Electoral College, “wild,” and then whipped up supporters on the day itself. Yet neither the Capitol Police nor the dozen or so federal security agencies that ultimately responded were called in time to take the obvious preliminary action. Indeed, these forces were not called until after the mob had invaded the Capitol and under-staffed Capitol Police on duty had been easily overcome. Even the usual blocking off of the Capitol during high-profile events like the inauguration did not occur.

Security measures that have been taken around the Capitol would not have been needed at all if not for these avoidable planning and security failures. The most advanced nation in the world has and should use state-of-the-art technology and security protocols superior to military-style fortifications to protect our Capitol. For proponents of a fence, the recent proposal for a retractable fence should more than do. That is the recommendation of the Task Force 1-6, which recently briefed me on its findings and recommendations. I do not object to a retractable fence for the rare occasion when putting it up could be necessary. Beyond an invisible, below-ground, retractable fence, the Task Force made other sensible recommendations, among them improving intelligence with daily intelligence summaries, empowering the Capitol Police chief to augment capacity during emergencies, and hiring additional USCP officers. I have made these and other recommendations part of my bill in which I nonetheless prohibit permanent fencing, the No Fencing at the United States Capitol Complex Act (H.R. 1017).

Fences, of course, can be appropriate where they serve a uniquely indispensable security function. The fence around the White House is a case in point. Unlike the “People’s House,” which has always been open to the public, no one would expect the White House, the private residence of the president, to be open to all comers at all times. In fact, the White House has repeatedly been the object of fence jumpers over the years. In 2014, for example, a fence jumper scaled the White House fence while the president was in residence. In response, I supported a somewhat higher wrought-iron, historically authentic fence, along with keeping guard dogs closer to the fence at night. However, even the White House is not inaccessible to the public but may be visited by the public during certain hours.

Yet once again, after the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, the entire area around the White House, a park area, was closed to the public. Back then, I worked with the White House and the Secret Service to widen E Street in the back of the White House, and succeeded in maintaining access across E Street, a major thoroughfare. However, that road was closed after 9/11. We must not allow such closings to become a permanent, automatic response to disturbances. Nor can we allow closings like this to become permanent by default by extending “temporary” measures ad infinitum. For the Capitol fencing, we should only extend the time based on verifiable evidence presented by intelligence services that Congress is in danger. Failing that, we should begin the work of getting this fence down as soon as possible.

I began this essay by noting that the Capitol sits on a hill. That hill is named for the Capitol, of course. However, Capitol Hill is not on that hill alone. The nation’s founders and the architects who designed the nation’s capital did not place their Capitol at a distance from the people. They placed the Capitol in a neighborhood, which begins at the aptly named First Street — the first street beyond the Capitol at the entrance of the Capitol grounds itself.

The Capitol Hill neighborhood has been more than tolerant during the close-down of a major part of their community, offering refreshments to National Guard troops stationed there even as residents have had the difficult task of trafficking around the streets leading to their homes. The barriers around the Capitol and its surrounding grounds make it impossible to get to the lower parts of Capitol Hill without using seemingly endless detours around the extensive barriers.

As a Capitol Hill resident, I have dealt with this inconvenience myself. My neighbors and I want our neighborhood back. That includes the Capitol. The Capitol is still closed to the American people except for staff and members of Congress. Not only is the people’s Capitol closed to the people, so too are the Capitol grounds, essentially a park to D.C. residents and visitors. It’s time to return the entire Capitol to the people to whom it belongs.

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