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Protecting the Congress: A Look at Capitol Hill Security

Following the horrendous shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, the Senate side of the Capitol grounds was placed in full lockdown, with Senators and staff unable to leave their office buildings. The House side of the Capitol, however, was open for business, although additional security measures were put in place. Even though the United States Capitol Police (USCP) protects them both, the House and Senate had different opening statuses because the two bodies are independent in many respects. Each house has a Sergeant at Arms who oversees security for his own Chamber, and in this case, the two officials made different calls as to whether they should lockdown.

Even when the United States Capitol is not in lockdown, it is heavily protected. However, this has not always been so. Congress has traditionally been the branch of government nearest to the people, and the building has been relatively open to reflect that. As time has gone on, the institution has added additional security measures in response to attacks and threats.

You could argue that the origins of Capitol security do go back to the first Congress in 1789, when each body created the office of Sergeant at Arms, whose duty is to ensure the safety and order of the Chamber he serves. Another milestone occurred in 1801, when John Golding was appointed the first guard of the Capitol, which was still under construction. The National Archives reports that Golding was essentially a groundskeeper. Of course, no one resisted when the British burned the Capitol and destroyed the Library of Congress that was housed inside in 1814 – but then again no one protected the White House either, and we burned the Navy Yard ourselves (to prevent the British from capturing our munitions). In true Washingtonian fashion, someone had to be thrown under the bus, so the Clerk of the House was charged with neglect of duty for leaving town before securing the body’s records, reports Robert Remini, author of The House: The History of the House of Representatives.

In 1827, President John Quincy Adams requested the creation of a four-man squad to protect the Capitol, and an act for that purpose was passed the following year. This is regarded as the creation of today’s United States Capitol Police.

In a testament to their dutiful service to Congress, there have only been a handful of notable incidents of violence directed towards Members at the Capitol or the building itself. There have even been a few bombings. The first was late at night on July 2, 1915, when Erich Muenter, a German immigrant to the United States, planted dynamite near the Senate to protest the country’s World War I policies. Weather Underground detonated a bomb in March 1971 to protest the invasion of Laos. Metal detectors were then placed at the doors of the building and staff were issued ID cards. A similar incident occurred in 1983, when the Resistance Conspiracy, a communist group formed of members of Weather Underground, planted a bomb in revenge for American military activities in Grenada and Lebanon. No one was harmed during this incident, although a historic portrait of the statesman Senator Daniel Webster was severely damaged in the blast. In fact, no casualties were reported following any of the bombings. However, following the 1983 bombing, additional security precautions were added, including closing the lobby outside the Senate Chamber. A new, elite division of the Capitol Police, the Containment and Emergency Response Team (CERT), was also created. CERT is specially trained to handle a variety of situations including actual dangers to the Capitol, like terrorism, or more peaceful events that nonetheless require a high degree of security, like Presidential visits.

In addition to these bombings, there have been two notable shootings. On March 1, 1954, a group of four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from one of the galleries in the House of Representatives Chamber, as a way of drawing attention to their quest for independence for the commonwealth. They injured five Representatives. Each of the attackers was given a lengthy prison sentence, although President Jimmy Carter pardoned them in the late 1970s.

Another shooting occurred in July 1998, when a deranged gunman forced his way into the Capitol, eventually killing two Capitol Police officers, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. Chestnut was stationed at the door where the gunman, Russell Weston, Jr., entered the building. Gibson was assigned to protect House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and was protecting the office suite at the time of the shooting. While protecting the staff, Gibson gunned down the assailant despite being fatally wounded.  It was the first shooting since the Puerto Rican nationalists attacked and the first in which any Capitol Police officer was killed while on duty. Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor, attempted unsuccessfully to revive Gibson. He also provided assistance to the gunman, who was later ruled too incompetent to stand trial. There was a massive outpouring of grief for the two officers, and the Congress paid tribute to them with a memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. Later that year, the Congressional Institute also had the honor of organizing a benefit event to raise money for the families of the slain officers.

The 1998 shooting prompted government officials to review security measures for Federal buildings. Additional police officers were assigned to the entrances of the Capitol and to congressional leaders. It also renewed calls for the building of the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), a facility to welcome guests to the complex. The CVC, which was opened in 2008, has security checkpoints and helps manage the flow of guests around the building.

The year 2001, of course, permanently altered security protocols at the Capitol. On September 11, the downed Flight 93 may have been heading for the U.S. Capitol before passengers retook the aircraft from the terrorists.  Also that year, anthrax spores were mailed to congressional offices, leading to a number of new security measures to combat the threat of a biological attack. “Security was raised to an unprecedented level in order to protect the Capitol, the Congress, and the national legislative process,” House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood testified before the House Administration Committee a year after the attacks. Beginning in December 2011, the D.C. National Guard assisted in protecting the Capitol for several months. Following the 9/11 attacks, new measures were put in place to standardize protocol in the event of a large-scale evacuation. Additionally, over 200 additional police officers were hired. Streets were closed and trucks, cars, and even bicycles were rerouted in different areas around the complex. According to John Stopher, a staffer for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Congress and its various offices developed plans for continuity of operations in the event of another attack. Areas around the Capitol lawns were blocked off. After the anthrax attacks, mail for Congress was sent to offsite facilities for screening. Although a necessary precaution, this process means that mail can take anywhere from 10 to 14 days to reach its destination.

Today, each Congressional office has the responsibility of creating multiple plans, depending on the type of attack, to protect their staff and visiting constituents.  Constituents may include the elderly, handicapped and even infants. While people often join in criticizing the Congress, the often forget that the thousands of people who work on the Capitol Hill campus do their job knowing they are high on the list of potential targets of many of the world’s most sophisticated and deadly terrorists.

Today, all staff and visitors to Congress or the congressional office buildings can expect to pass through at least one security checkpoint, perhaps two, if the final destination is the Capitol itself. The Capitol Visitor Center website lists items that tourists are prohibited from bring to the building, and there are additional restrictions for the Capitol itself. As this post suggests, security incidents are extraordinarily rare, but in the event that one does occur, staff are trained to help escort constituents and other visitors out of the way of danger. Thus, although the Capitol is necessarily heavily guarded, it remains freely accessible to the public – truly the people’s institution.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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