The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When will the people’s House be returned to the people? Not even Capitol officials know.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) looks at the statues in a nearly empty Statuary Hall in the Capitol in November. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
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On Wednesday night, more than 15,000 fans crowded into Capital One Arena to watch the Washington Wizards secure another early-season victory. On Thursday night, a few thousand concertgoers packed the Anthem to listen to the 80-year-old legend Bob Dylan perform.

And on Sunday evening, President Biden plans to join hundreds of attendees at the annual Kennedy Center Honors to pay tribute to a handful of cultural legends.

Yet Monday and Tuesday, when the Senate and House return for legislative business, respectively, the general public will be forbidden from the galleries above to watch America’s democracy in motion.

Almost 21 months into the coronavirus pandemic, the Capitol remains sealed off from the general public. Even as public venues around Washington and across the nation have moved into a new normal with new safety measures, no one is sure when the public will be back inside the Capitol.

No one knows when the people’s House will be returned to the people.

“I don’t know the answer to that. We are paying close attention,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the chamber’s operations. She said congressional leaders defer to advice from Brian P. Monahan, the medical expert who runs the Office of Attending Physician.

Those discussions have not been very active, Lofgren said. “Not recently.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, with similar oversight parameters on that side of the Capitol, concurred that there have not been robust discussions about when to try to reopen the buildings, even in some reduced numbers from the usual 15,000 daily visitors who came through the doors before the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the yo-yo effect of the virus, with infection rates plunging in the late spring and then soaring in the late summer, has made it difficult to plan a reopening. The new omicron variant highlights that concern.

But Hoyer, the fourth-longest serving member of the House, believes it is symbolically important to bring the public back to reject the forces that spawned during the only recent time in which the general public visited the Capitol — on Jan. 6, when thousands broke through outer barriers on the surrounding lawn and hundreds broke into the building in an effort to block certification of the 2020 election.

“I certainly want to get people back in this Capitol,” Hoyer said in an interview Thursday. “So they can see their Capitol — it’s their Capitol — and feel its essence, peacefully. Get people back in here peacefully, who are positive people, who want to see their Capitol as opposed to destroy it.”

A Washington Post investigation of the events of Jan. 6

But that day is now also interlocked with the virus in terms of determining when to bring the general public back in some capacity to the Capitol.

The decision rests with the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who work in consultation with Monahan for medical advice, according to Democratic aides familiar with the discussions.

But those officials are also tasked with post-Jan. 6 security considerations as they contemplate the return of visitors, according to the sources.

It’s unclear what threats visitors might pose, given that tourists have to go through a massive security screening to enter the Capitol Visitors Center under normal circumstances. And hundreds of Capitol Police officers serve inside and around the perimeter of the campus, ready to respond to any threats.

Some lawmakers suggest that quite a few of their colleagues remain deeply traumatized — the overall nature of the Jan. 6 attack, hearing the shot that killed one rioter trying to enter the lobby next to the House chamber, and then scampering underground to a secure location.

“Don’t underestimate the trauma,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

Connolly said that, for some members, just seeing the general public back in the building would serve as a “trigger” to bring them back to the violence of 11 months ago.

Congressional officials do not mention these lingering Jan. 6 concerns when explaining the continued shutdown to the public. Hoyer and Blunt, when asked whether that was part of the holdup, both said no.

“I think it’s about the virus,” Hoyer said.

If the issue is just health concerns, the Capitol is taking stricter measures than its counterpart in London.

The United Kingdom Parliament has been open for months for in-person tours. While operating at reduced capacity for social distancing, Westminster is open to the general public if visitors plan ahead to get assigned tickets, wear a mask and scan in using a QR code that allows contact tracing measures in the event they later test positive for covid.

Even that has prompted some MPs to call for more access to Parliament’s deliberations, complaining that lobbyists are holding events again on the grounds.

In Washington, where city officials have wavered over an indoor mask mandate, major venues have adopted their own standards.

A collection of concert venues, including the Anthem, created an app for proof of vaccination to enter concerts, while also allowing guests to show a photo of their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card proving vaccination.

The Kennedy Center also requires vaccination proof to enters its events and requires masks at all times.

But the Capitol remains shuttered except for lawmakers, staff, its credentialed press corps and those deemed to be official visitors.

This all started on March 12, 2020, just as so much of the rest of the world shut down. Capitol security officials ended all public tours throughout the campus and up in the galleries above the two chambers.

Monahan has an official policy of never answering any media questions, so it is laughable when congressional leaders refer the press to the attending physician to explain health issues on campus.

The Jan. 6 attack prompted a heavy security presence, including a much-criticized fence that created a massive perimeter for many weeks. That loosened up in April, and more official visitors have since been allowed to enter the buildings.

Any day Congress is in session, a few lawmakers can be seen bringing a small collection of family or friends around the Capitol, giving exclusive tours during slow points in the day.

It’s now just an accepted feature of daily life under the dome. With so much other strife inside the Capitol, no one wants to discipline a lawmaker for breaking rules to show off the “citadel of democracy” to some unofficial guests.

Yet this has made the Capitol more like an actual citadel — a fortress that only the most privileged can enter.

Hoyer remains optimistic that the public, in some limited fashion, can return soon, something he hoped for back in June only to see a late-summer covid surge.

“I thought we were just about through this and then — whoa — now this omicron is coming,” he said.

Others say that the Jan. 6 trauma is almost as important. Until that fades, it will be difficult to really reopen the Capitol.

“It’s still lingering,” Connolly said.

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