Ritchie Torres to revive permanent Capitol fence plan

The Capitol’s existing open campus policy is ‘untenable’ in the current political environment, Torres told JI

Richard Drew/AP

Former New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, left, speaks at a news conference in New York in 2018.

Freshman Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) plans to revive the Capitol Gateway Plan, a previously rejected security proposal to encircle the entire Capitol grounds with a permanent secure fence, as a House bill on Wednesday afternoon.

Torres had the idea for the proposal — which comes in response to the January 6 riot at the Capitol — after reading a Jewish Insider interview the following day with former Senate Sergeant-at Arms Terry Gainer, who spearheaded the Capitol Gateway Plan, the New York congressman told JI on Wednesday.

“I never thought, as a newly sworn in member, that I would live through a violent insurrection against the Capitol,” Torres told JI. “Compared to the White House, which has long been heavily guarded and enclosed, the security of the Capitol has long been an afterthought for federal law enforcement. Congress is a co-equal branch of government. And we should strive to make the Capitol every bit as secure as the White House itself.” 

“We have to ensure the Capitol is secure in a time of sedition,” he continued.

The Capitol’s comparatively lax security has stemmed in part from an institutional priority on public access. The Capitol’s grounds have traditionally been open to the public and, until the COVID-19 outbreak, citizens could visit the building and observe proceedings. But Torres believes such policies are no longer feasible in the current political environment.

“We have to be mindful of the times we live in. The Capitol as an open campus is an open invitation to mob violence,” Torres said. “And as a wise person once said, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And I would rather secure the Capitol than repeat the deadly history that took hold on January 6.”

Torres added that he sees room to preserve some form of public access to the Capitol while increasing security, but said “the status quo is untenable and so is the complete absence of a permanent barrier on the perimeter of the Capitol.”

The newly elected congressman — who was sworn in earlier this month — said that even after President Donald Trump leaves office, “the crisis of violent white nationalism that Trump has unleashed” will remain a threat.

Gainer’s plan failed to gain traction among congressional leaders because of its hefty price tag, as well as concerns that such an enclosure would generate perceptions of a heightened security state. But after the events last week, Torres argued, “the cost of doing too little or nothing is far greater.”

Torres is early in the lobbying process, and so far no other members have signed on to support his legislation. He predicted that the proposal will encounter some resistance.

“I imagine there are members of Congress who are wedded to the romantic vision of the Capitol as an open campus,” he said. “But that vision is no longer defensible in a world of violent white supremacy, at a time when there are known attempts by white supremacists to assassinate members of Congress.”

Gainer praised Torres for his efforts to move the plan forward.

“Exploring methods to enhance the security of the Capitol complex, the Members and their staff as well as the millions of annual visitors is responsible leadership,” Gainer told JI. “Representative Ritchie Torres reached out to me through his senior staff about the Capitol Gateway plan. I was pleasantly surprised and thought ‘finally.’”

Security was significantly increased at the Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday, with thousands of National Guard troops deployed to the site, supplementing those who were sent in the days after the riot. While the initial group of guardsmen arrived unarmed, the troops are now being equipped with body armor and helmets and armed with rifles.

National Guardsmen in the Capitol (Credit: Marc Rod)

Capitol security personnel also added additional temporary fencing along the outer perimeter of the Capitol grounds, supplementing fences constructed last week within the complex. Torres said he is glad to see the increased National Guard presence around the Capitol, but argued that additional manpower will not be sufficient in the long term.

“Personnel can only bring you so far. If you have a mob of thousands and thousands of insurrectionists descending on the Capitol, what is required is not simply more manpower, what’s required is a security fence that prevents an invasion,” Torres said.

Newly erected metal detectors outside the House chambers also remained controversial on Tuesday, with several Republicans sidestepping the checkpoints entirely, as Capitol Police made no apparent efforts to stop them.

This post was updated at 4:45 p.m. on 1/14/21.

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