Congressional security officers are using the Persian Gulf War to revive a $13 million plan to turn the Capitol grounds into a fenced compound.
The 127-acre area has long been a park open to all, an anchor of the Washington Mall. In warm weather, bicyclists swoop past brown-baggers admiring the extraordinary foliage and gawking at the incredibly fat pigeons.
But since the early 1980s, when rumors of Libyan hit squads reached Washington, the people responsible for protecting senators and representatives have been pushing to clamp down on such easy access.
The security plan drafted in 1987 would encircle the Capitol with a protective barrier including security checkpoints at the perimeter, similar to the system used at the White House.
Congress gave itself permission to spend the money, but only interim steps have been taken.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other congressional leaders have resisted taking the "people's branch" of government another step away from the people.
They also have been reluctant to take away from themselves, staff members and reporters their cherished parking spots on the compound.
In the interim, additional metal detectors have been installed at Capitol entrances. Giant concrete flower pots have been placed at the roadway entrances along with steel barriers that can be lowered to let cars through.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees such matters, says the plan being pitched to House members is an aesthetic improvement over the original version.
Rather than encircle the grounds with a tall, iron, White House-type fence, the plan would hide barriers in a hedge.
Once inside the grounds, Fazio said, people would be more free to move around than they are now, since they could skip going through the metal detectors at the Capitol doorways.
In addition, there is a companion plan to replace the asphalt parking lot on the East Front with a granite plaza complete with ornamental fountains.
Fazio would like to see a visitors' center built below ground, so tourists could see a film and get oriented to the Capitol. The building has no central tourist facility and, despite a legion of friendly guides, visitors often get lost in the hallways.
For such an overhaul of the Capitol grounds, Foley "would have to be persuaded that the security situation required it," said his spokesman, Jeff Biggs. But the speaker is very aware of his responsibility for his colleagues' safety, Biggs added.
Biggs said there is no timetable for deciding on the security plan.