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Reporter’s Notebook: US Capitol to lose fencing, but still not be back to normal

The Smithsonian: open.

The National Mall: open.

Nats Park: fully open.

But the U.S. Capitol remains mostly closed.

The Capitol remained off-limits to tourists in town for Independence Day.

Part of this was security. Part of this was the pandemic. And, surprise, part of this was politics.

This concerns many longtime observers of Capitol Hill.

“This is the longest period of time that the Capitol has not been accessible to the American people generally in the history of its existence,” said Jane Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. 

FENCE SURROUNDING US CAPITOL IS EXPECTED TO COME DOWN STARTING ON JULY 8

The security fence erected after the January riot is slated to come down this weekend. But that doesn’t mean the Capitol is open for business as usual yet.

Lawmakers still struggle to meet with constituents.

“It’s completely limited. So the very people who come to town we can meet with, but it’s usually off campus somewhere,” complained Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio. “So for most of them it’s a waste of time to come up here.” 

The image of a shuttered Capitol sends a profound message to the public.

“To have the building continue to be closed raises the question about how open is our democracy and how accessible are our lawmakers,” said Campbell. “It’s very difficult to say we want to build trust in government when there’s a fence between the governmental building that is our symbol of democracy and the American people.”

Removing the fence would help with that “trust” that Campbell speaks of. With the fence down, most “outsiders” will be able to amble, unimpeded, across the nearly 60 acres which surround the Capitol. They can walk their dog. Devour a picnic lunch under a tree. Practice yoga in a shady spot in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. Sit on a bench for a date.

“Based on what I know, the fences should come down. This is the people’s house and this belongs to the American people. We want it to be free and open,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. “We don’t want this to be like the Green Zone [in Baghdad].”

CAPITOL RIOT 6 MONTHS LATER: FBI RELEASES 11 NEW VIDEOS OF WANTED SUSPECTS

But reopening the Capitol could also invite a security threat. There is a daily cavalcade of news stories about new arrests from the January riot. Concerns about the readiness and training of U.S. Capitol Police officers. Whispers about retirements and officers quitting. Worries about their mental health and preparedness.

Six months after the attack, acting USCP Chief Yogananda Pittman saluted “the brave men and women who, against all odds, faced down a violent crowd that day and protected our leaders and everyone who was in the Capitol complex.”

The USCP updated its riot training procedures, marshaled new shields and helmets. It also set up a “critical response plan” that would help defend the Capitol.

Are the Capitol Police ready if a mob of people attempt to storm the American Capitol again?

That’s the thing about Jan. 6. How do you prove a negative? There were other security breaches and incidents at the Capitol over the years: A bombing in the Senate in the 1980s. Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House chamber in the 1950s. A gunman killed two U.S. Capitol Police officers in 1998. U.S. Capitol Police Officer Billy Evans died April 2 when a crazed driver rammed a Senate barricade and lunged at officers with a machete.

The Capitol is a dangerous place.

Until it’s not.

Things are safe at the Capitol.

Until they’re not.

In other words, if the Capitol hasn’t experienced an incursion like the one on Jan. 6 since the War of 1812, we’re good for a couple more centuries, right?

Or, is the threat even more amplified this time? Especially as some fanatics of former President Trump suggest he will magically return to the White House some time in August.

So even with the fence coming down, the Capitol is far from fully operational.

House and Senate committees conduct many of their hearings remotely – or, via a hybrid model, at best.

“In our Armed Services Committee, we’ve got some members that just are sitting in their offices during the hearings instead of coming into the hearing room,” complained Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the top GOPer on that panel. “There’s no reason for that other than they want to piddle with other things instead of paying attention to the subject matter.”

But there are few signs Zoom hearings will disappear. Lawmakers (and staff) frankly embrace the convenience. And, it’s sometimes easier to cobble together a slate of witnesses. But other lawmakers wonder if something isn’t lost in remote hearings. Lawmakers like to have the witness they are questioning right there in front of them in the hearing room. They like to look those witnesses in the eye from the dais and occasionally make them squirm during uncomfortable questioning.

Some of the “drama” and “theater” of Congressional hearings is just lost via Zoom.

Another issue is proxy voting, which continues in the House of Representatives. After much debate, the House instituted proxy voting last year so members could vote remotely during the pandemic. Lawmakers literally “phone-in” their votes to a member who is present in Washington and cast the ballot on behalf of their colleague via proxy. The Senate entertained a proxy voting idea proposed by bipartisan senators but that discussion never really matured.

HOW THE HOUSE’S NEW PROXY VOTING SYSTEM WILL WORK TO LIMIT CORONAVIRUS EXPOSURE

But bipartisan lawmakers believe members should vote in person with the pandemic subsiding.

“Members need to be present. They need to come to the Capitol and do their jobs,” said Rogers.

Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., supports remote voting as long as COVID-19 remains a threat. Barragan notes concerns in Los Angeles County, California, about the spread of the delta variant as she looks after her aging mom.

“With my own mother’s situation, I still have caregiver issues,” said Barragan. “There may still be days where I need to stay home and use the proxy.”

Republicans are suspect of Democrats extending proxy voting through mid-August. 

Democrats currently hold a 220-to-211 advantage over Republicans in the House with four vacancies. That means Democrats can only lose four votes on their side and not lean on the GOP for help. Republicans believe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., maintains proxy voting so Democrats won’t lose a tight vote if all Democratic troops don’t show up at the Capitol.

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What about the resumption of Capitol tours?

There’s been chatter some of those could return later this summer. But Fox is told some of the Capitol tour guides and their union aren’t ready to resume tours due to questions about security and the pandemic. So don’t expect a flood of tourists returning to Capitol Hill any time soon.

 And that means even as so much of Washington continues to reopen, the U.S. Capitol remains mostly closed.