• NILE

Is it Health & Safety or Politics that Keeps Capitol Hill Closed?

By: Paul A. Miller

 

I can still remember that horrifying September day when the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York, when the plane hit the Pentagon, and hearing the message from Todd Beamer saying “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” That was a time when Washington stopped everything and worked together to protect this country. It was a time when the lobbying community stopped business as usual and began working with Congress on how it could provide the support and resources they needed. Today during a global pandemic, we see none of that. Congress doesn’t reach out to the lobbying profession. Heck, members of Congress don’t reach out to each other. Congress doesn’t consider the lobbying profession a valuable resource when it comes to communicating about the continued closure of Capitol Hill, even though we are a critical part of the democratic process.


It’s been 23-months (and counting) since Capitol Hill has been open to the public. We are not saying that Capitol Hill needs to reopen today. We are saying that we are entitled to an honest answer as to why it remains closed to some and wide open to others. We are entitled to a timetable for reopening. The longer Capitol Hill is closed, the easier it is for Congress to keep us out. It becomes easier to embrace proxy voting. It makes it easier to justify staying home and not being in Washington.


COVID

Let me start by saying I recognize the health concerns raised by the rapid spread of Omicron and its impacts on people’s health, but Capitol Hill was closed before the spread of this variant, even when the country had reopened. It was safe for kids to re-enter the classroom. It was safe for 30,000 or more people to gather at a sporting event. Members of Congress have been more than willing, even with Omicron, to meet people out at fundraisers. We can even go out and have dinner at a restaurant. Yet, the one thing you cannot do today is freely access the U.S. Capitol and House and Senate office buildings. Why?


The lobbying profession has been told that it’s because of COVID, yet everyone else in the country has been getting out and doing things. We go to work, yet some in Congress haven’t been in Washington since 2020. Our kids are in the classroom learning while some in Congress are insulated from their constituents. Is the message that we will sacrifice children and voters, but not our elected leaders? That may sound silly, but when kids can be in a classroom and members of Congress are afraid to be in Washington and open to meeting with constituents, what else should we think? Is it really that unsafe to reopen Capitol Hill?


SECURITY

We have heard it’s a safety issue because of what happened on January 6, 2021, when people attacked our Democracy and those who are asked to defend it. Let me be clear, this was an attack on this country, but let’s not keep using that as a reason why Capitol Hill is closed. I recognize that even before January 6th, the men and women who protect those buildings were overworked and underpaid. I recognize that the Capitol Police force is understaffed, but there are solutions to the issues that exist. We could use National Guard troops as security officers. We could hire private security. Heck, Congress could use some of the money they have been passing out to help support and train our brave law enforcement officers.


It’s been two years now and still Capitol Hill remains closed. No one will downplay the seriousness of what happened that day, but even after 911, Capitol Hill reopened quickly. We need our leaders to put politics aside and simply do what is needed to provide the Capitol Police ALL the resources they need today, not stuffed away in some appropriations bill that may not see the light of day. We rushed through trillions of dollars during the height of the pandemic, we certainly can do the same for those who protect the lives of the very same members playing politics with the funding and reopening.


FIRST AMENDMENT

It seems as if there is a double standard in Washington when it comes to the issue of who can and can’t enter these buildings. Why is it that the press gets to roam freely in these buildings with no questions asked? The answer we have heard is they have a constitutional right to be there reporting the news. That same Constitutional amendment that grants them that right grants the people the right to petition our government. Yet, government affairs professionals representing constituents have limited or virtual only access while reporters roam freely.


My question is why doesn’t the same constitutional right apply to lobbyists and constituents? The Constitution gives We The People the right to petition our government. We will hear that no one is infringing on that right. You just need to do it virtually. Ask interest groups and constituents how effective that has been? They would tell you the process has been ineffective and inefficient. It has not allowed people to be heard on issues critical to their lives. The Constitution of the United States gives We The People the same rights as the press, yet one gets free access and the other does not.


Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

CONCLUSION

Capitol Hill needs to reopen in 2022. We The People need a timetable for reopening, and “we don’t know when” is not an answer. The answer isn’t when the House physician tells us it’s safe to reopen. The country has reopened, and Congress should too. If it is safe for our kids to go to school, it should be safe for our leaders to show up for work and meet face-to-face with their constituents.


It is time to reopen Capitol Hill. Here’s a timeline for you. Let’s make the reopening March 14, 2022. Let’s stop stalling and join the rest of the country in reopening. It can be done. It must be done. Let’s stop playing politics and hiding from constituents and interest groups that want and need to be heard.


Paul A. Miller is a partner at Miller Wenhold Capitol Strategies and is Chairman of the Board of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics.

 

NILE has launched a "Reopening Capitol Hill" Series for our members starting on January 27th with a discussion with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Ranking Member of the House Administration Committee. Rep. Davis has been a vocal supporter for the reopening of Capitol Hill and will share with us his ideas on how it can be done now in a healthy and safe way.


Learn More about each session of our "Reopening Capitol Hill" here.


 

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