‘…given current health conditions and the likelihood that COVID will, in some form, persist for many years, congressional leadership should no longer allow Congress to hide behind an overly broad exclusion of the American people from in-person civic participation on Capitol Hill.’
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) authored the following op-ed in Fox News advocating for fully restored public access to the United States Capitol and congressional office buildings. The Capitol complex was closed to the public on March 12, 2020 due to the pandemic, and it has since remained closed with limited public access while many businesses and large venues across the country have reopened and operate with virtually no capacity restrictions.
Let the People Back Into Their Capitol
U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville
December 14, 2021
It’s time to allow the American people to return to their United States Capitol.
In March of 2020, Americans came together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by temporarily closing small businesses, schools, churches, and other public places to in-person attendance. As part of that lockdown, the Capitol complex was closed to the public on March 12, 2020.
Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. Fortunately, American ingenuity delivered safe and effective vaccines in record-breaking time, and innovation continues on promising new treatments for those infected. Even so, the American people are coming to the realization that the answer is to adapt, overcome, and move forward with their lives, not simply to shut down and wait.
Unfortunately, what was originally an emergency step at the beginning of the pandemic—shuttering the U.S. Capitol and surrounding buildings—has slowly morphed into the new normal in Washington. The ultimate symbol of democracy in our country and around the world remains the Capitol’s dome, but today—in violation of the principles that dome represents—few beyond politicians, congressional staff, and well-connected lobbyists are allowed to stand below it or to visit the elected representatives who work on either side of it. Worse, Democrats in power seem content with the new rules.
It is not surprising that politicians would find comfort in an arrangement that keeps the public at arm’s length. Public access to the Capitol complex is a check on the democratic process: the people’s direct involvement in the legislative process helps keep lawmakers honest and accountable. The fact that some in office might find it inconvenient or annoying to deal with the American people is of no consequence.
With the Capitol complex closed, the number of direct meetings between citizens and their elected representatives is dramatically reduced. Much of the important work of congressional committees is off limits to the public. Public tours of the national landmark are prohibited, and the doors to the U.S Capitol Visitors Center (CVC)—which cost taxpayers $600 million to build—remain locked.
Similarly, the corresponding limitation on visitors to the Senate and House office buildings is equally frustrating. Some congressional offices, including my own, have been staffed in person throughout 2021. Since April, my office has facilitated in person meetings with constituents and stakeholders, despite the unnecessary requirement that staff meet our visitors at a security check point and escort them through the Russell Senate Office Building.
Providing constituents an opportunity to be heard by their elected representatives and staff is a proud Capitol Hill tradition. As I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree, hearing directly from a constituent about how a federal law, policy, or program affects their life is among the most valuable ways Members of Congress understand public sentiment. Our guests—who express sincere gratitude for the opportunity to be heard in person. That is a worrisome development; we should never allow the norm in Congress to be that American citizens should feel “grateful” for a meeting with a Member of Congress or congressional staff. In many respects, our job is to listen, and, in fact, we should be grateful to public for the opportunity to serve in Washington.
And, after months of awaiting word that public tours would resume, it was recently announced that Senate staff may lead just two tours per week, with only six people per tour, through an extremely abbreviated visit to the Capitol. It is my understanding that there is still no concrete plan in development to broadly allow visitors in the entirety of the publicly accessible areas of U.S Capitol, to reopen the CVC, or to permit regular and easy access to the Senate office buildings. That must change.
While it may be reasonable to make certain accommodations to ensure the health and safety of members, staff, and visitors, current conditions no longer justify a blanket prohibition on the public’s access to Capitol Hill. Right now, Democrats run the House and Senate, and their leadership should take all necessary steps to restore public access to the Capitol and surrounding office buildings in a manner consistent with pre-March 2020 security protocols.
I am confident that virtual meetings with citizens who wish to communicate through those channels will continue. Additionally, individual member offices can determine if and how they receive constituents—and then be judged accordingly by their voters. But, given current health conditions and the likelihood that COVID will, in some form, persist for many years, congressional leadership should no longer allow Congress to hide behind an overly broad exclusion of the American people from in-person civic participation on Capitol Hill.
It’s time to find a way to let the people back in.
Senator Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate and is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs, and HELP Committees.