washington dc

‘It’s Time to Free the Capitol’

Temporary security fencing near the U.S. Capitol
A view of the U.S. Capitol on March 12 through the temporary security fencing erected following the January 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob on Congress. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the past two months, Washington, D.C., has been part-fortress. Stepping out the grand marble entrance of Union Station, the typical vista of the U.S. Capitol remains marred by high fencing topped with razor wire, which stretches four miles around the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and various congressional office buildings. Behind the fence are armed National Guardsmen idly standing watch. Even during the Civil War, when the enemy was just across the Potomac and a military prison stood at the current site of the Supreme Court, there was not this level of security.

The desire to tear down the fence and return the Capitol to something resembling its pre-January 6 state is one of the rare notes of bipartisan consensus in Washington. Some tension remains, however.

Everyone agrees that the fence is ugly and deeply inconvenient. It’s not just that it makes life difficult for lawmakers and makes visiting impossible for constituents and tourists; it makes a mess of an entire neighborhood. There are Capitol Hill residents who look out their windows every day to see razor wire and armed men in camouflage. There are countless D.C. residents whose commute is snarled by roadblocks. And, for children in the District, the slope leading up from the National Mall to the domed Capitol is one of the few good places to go sledding on a snowy winter’s day.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate who represents the District in the House of Representatives, and lives just nine blocks from the Capitol, told Intelligencer that she feels her constituents’ pain. She pointed out that locating the Capitol  in the heart of the city was part of the Founding Fathers’ vision. “That’s what the framers wanted. If they had wanted a Capitol that didn’t have people surrounding it they would have put it on a hill somewhere,” she explained. “While that might have been glorious, it wouldn’t have signified the democracy the framers meant us to be, so they put it plum up against the neighborhood — it’s time that neighborhood was free, just like it’s time to free the Capitol.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks to reporters at a protest against the U.S. Capitol security fencing on Saturday. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Retired lieutenant general Russell Honore, who was tasked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the security of the Capitol after the attack on January 6, recommended the barrier be replaced with retractable fencing in a report to Congress. In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, Honore argued “the sight of barriers and concertina encircling the Capitol is a reminder that fences accomplish a number of things, most of them bad.”

But while the perimeter is expected to be reduced in size in the coming days, it remains unclear how long the fencing and its National Guard minders are going to stay. Juliette Kayyem, a former official in the Obama Department of Homeland Security, emphasized to Intelligencer that it is typically much harder to reduce security precautions than increase them, a dynamic she called the “ratchet up conundrum.” Explained Kayyem, “if something bad happens, you can throw a bunch of stuff at it … but it’s always harder to ratchet down because it’s very difficult to guarantee that the threat has gone away.” She noted that the fencing around the Capitol is a rare situation where there is political pressure to get rid of the additional precautions, whereas usually it is to keep them.

The politics of removing the fence are still complicated in the aftermath of January 6, however. While Holmes Norton, a liberal Democrat, has introduced legislation to ban permanent fencing at the Capitol, the fact that hard-right Republicans also want the barrier removed has prompted some anxiety. Most notoriously, Lauren Boebert, a Colorado freshman who tweeted “Today is 1776” on the morning of the attack on the Capitol, later put a video online registering her disdain for the fencing.

Such sentiment leaves Representative Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee for the legislative branch, a little wary. “If you’re supportive of the insurrection and you want the fence to come down, it carries very little weight with those of us who have to make a very important decision about the safety of the staff and the members.”
Meanwhile, Republican congressman Rodney Davis, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Capitol grounds, blamed Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the ongoing angst. Davis, who on January 6 voted to uphold the presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, said “the partisan temperature is as high as it’s ever been in Washington” and claimed Pelosi was deliberately maintaining that tension, since “it’s a way to keep her members voting by party rather than voting by policy.” Davis expressed particular frustration with the decision by the House to shut down on March 4 on account of ultimately unfounded rumors of a QAnon attack on the Capitol. He contrasted Pelosi’s decision with Senate Democrats’, who not only opted to proceed with that day’s session, but even allowed Vice-president Kamala Harris to come to the Capitol to cast a tie-breaking vote.

A pedestrian walks by the fence surrounding the Capitol in late February. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Both Davis and Ryan also share the faith that Capitol Hill will eventually return to some kind of pre-fortress normal. “We just have to make sure that things are secure until we get the new posture developed,” Ryan explained. “I don’t think it is going to be that much longer, but [the fence] needs to stay up until we get to that point.” Davis, a survivor of the congressional baseball game shooting that grievously wounded minority whip Steve Scalise in 2017, noted that the congressional baseball game went on the very next day despite the shooting. “Our message after that event was, ‘We gotta play,’ we can make it secure but we’ve got play and at some point we gotta come together and say, ‘We gotta play and we gotta open Congress’ — how do we do it and work together and get it done?”

In the meantime, at least for the short term, the razor wire will remain.

The Slow Push to ‘Free the Capitol’ From Its Fencing