How Safe Can Congressmen Get?

  • Share
  • Read Later
You might think the capital of the most powerful country in the world would have the best protection of any place in the world. But you would be wrong. So many uniforms — the Capitol, Embassy, Transit and DC police — so little protection. Beset by conflicting emotions, members of Congress don't make it easy. Yes, they feel vulnerable (nursing the legitimate suspicion that the terrorists aimed for but missed them the first time), but they’re also clinging to an illegitimate sense of self-importance.

Members of the House and Senate leadership have cars, drivers and safe houses to go to (albeit minus spouses) in emergencies. But everyone else is on their own, which is why the rank and file suffer from White House envy. Every time one congressman hears that Vice President Dick Cheney is off in a secure location, he fumes, "What are we, chopped liver?"

[an error occurred while processing this directive]On the other hand, there’s often overreaction. Busy metro stations were shut down two days last week because of bioterrorism scares. An SUV cab on its way to a Capitol Hill party was stopped because it bore an unfamiliar logo. Georgetown was nearly shut down Thursday night when the Hash House Harriers, a running club which marks each mile covered with a pile of white flour, was mistaken for anthrax-spewing members of Al Qaeda. Yet at former Majority leader Mike Mansfield's burial at Arlington Cemetery last week, with half the Senate in attendance, only those who entered on the Fort Myer side got the dog-sniffing and mirror under the chassis treatment. Everyone who entered on the Memorial Bridge side was waved through without a question.

While caterers and ground crew are still not being obviously screened at the recently reopened National Airport, no one on the DC-New York shuttle can as much as go to the bathroom, thanks to a new "no leaving your seat in the first or last half-hour of a trip or the plane will be diverted to the nearest airport" rule. Frequent flyer New York Rep. Charlie Rangel counseled understandably antsy people on his flight last week to hold tight or they’d be touching down in Dulles, 25 miles from Washington and three miles, by mobile-lounge, from the taxi-stand. "I've had it with people-movers," grumbled the Harlem congressman, who, like the rest of Washington, has been relegated to the Virginia airport for three weeks.

Last Thursday, at the Capitol, the siren was finally working but the system was not. People streamed obediently out of the Hart Building but one exit was blocked by a guard who said he was following orders, creating a small panic. Afterwards, Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police said, "It was a mistake, simple as that." They’re not quite ready for the new dangers and have set up with the attending physician, architect, and leadership the Legislative Emergency Preparedness Task Force, which had not completed its recommendations by the time the FBI urged everyone into a state of "highest alert."

In the meantime, there's a civil defense movie staffers can go see which is short on information but long on frightening scenarios. "It will scare the bejesus out of you," said one staffer. In one frame someone is entering the mailroom of the Longworth Building with a packet strapped inside his jacket and in the next computer-generated frame the Longworth Building blows up. It’s good for democracy that member of Congress aren’t getting special treatment. But how good is it for the Republic that they’re getting little treatment at all? Let’s hope the task force gets a move on.