Is the U.S. Capitol’s New Visitor Screening Too Thorough?
As part of their job in screening visitors to the U.S. Capitol (should the complex ever re-open to the public, that is), U.S. Capitol Police often rummage through backpacks and purses. Lately, they may also be rummaging through more than that: your tax records, real estate holdings, and social media posts. All without your knowledge.
Besty Woodruff Swan and Daniel Lippman broke the details this week of a new Capitol Police initiative that involves deep dives into the speech, background, and lifestyle details of who members of Congress are meeting with, including donors, Hill staff, mayors, state legislators, and other Americans exercising their First Amendment right to petition their government…
All of this is occurring under the guise of the “enhanced security measures” deemed necessary after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. However, it is unclear how such measures would have actually prevented the Jan. 6 events in the first place.
The Capitol Police have provided no detailed justification. Nor have they said what they are doing with the records, how long those records are being stored, or what other purposes they have. The agency is only subject to congressional oversight — not to public records requests…
This practice also comes dangerously close to burdening the free exercise of political speech, which includes the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances” without fear of reprisal. As Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., a former criminal defense attorney, pointed out to Swan and Lipmann, these measures also walk right up to the line of “spying on members of Congress, their staff, their constituents and their supporters.”
“Anybody involved with implementing this without making it known to the actual members of Congress should resign or be fired immediately,” Armstrong went on. “And I’m not big on calling for resignations…”
The Capitol, as well as the House and Senate office buildings, remain closed to visitors as they have been since early spring 2020, the longest stretch in the country’s history. It’s been longer than any closure for the Civil War, or even the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu.
Football stadiums all over the country are packed, lawmakers fly to and from the Capitol on full flights and attend in-person events and fundraisers, and the Senate still votes in person (the House is still shamelessly proxy voting). But the corridors of self-government remain closed off to the people to whom they belong.
In addition to being transparently unnecessary, this undermines the nature of our self-government. Access to and interaction with those we elect is central to our representation. One of the qualities that makes America exceptional is our citizen legislature. That those we elect do not sit higher than us, but equal to us.
Placing heavier and heavier burdens on entry to the U.S. Capitol — the seat of our democracy — as well as access to those who represent us strikes at the heart of that relationship, and a central feature of republican government. It changes the detachment of our representatives from their constituencies from merely a rhetorical formulation into a literal one.
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(Excerpt from The Federalist. Photo Credit: Getty Images)
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