When Will the People’s House Open?

In early January, I went on a walk around the Capitol with my baby. It wasn’t too cold outside, and families visiting from all over the world were enjoying the weather and wandering the National Mall. I took a break to drink some water outside the U.S. Botanic Garden, a massive greenhouse, filled with beautiful plants. It’s an absolute delight. (My mom and I went together in the summer of 2019, and she still talks about it.) From where I was sitting, I watched as family after family approached the doors to enter and walked away dismayed when they realized it was closed.

The Botanic Garden has been closed to the public for nearly two years amid the coronavirus pandemic—a closure undeterred by the existence of effective vaccines. Those wondering when it might reopen, as many of the nearby Smithsonian museums have, won’t find any clear answers on the garden’s website. That’s because it is part of the Capitol campus, subject to the ongoing broad closures directed by the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms. The Capitol itself, which houses the branch of federal government closest to the American people, has been largely shuttered to tours throughout the pandemic, with office buildings that in the past have been open to the public closed as well.

While it made sense to close the complex before vaccines became available—and later as repairs were conducted and security officials reshaped their procedures in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol—the ongoing lockdown is drawing renewed criticism as the recent Omicron surge wanes. For months, Republicans have supported reopening the complex, but Democrats have been cautious. Now, momentum is growing among Democrats to ease restrictions and allow the public back into the building.

“This place belongs to the people; they should be able to be here,” Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, told Scott Wong of NBC News last week. 

Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 3 million to 5 million people visited the Capitol each year. A typical day at the Capitol involved groups tailing tour guides decked out in bright red jackets as they discussed the history of the building and the art within it. School kids shuffled past Pelosi’s office, whispering as they noticed her name placard, and taking pictures. People waited in line to sit in the galleries above the House and the Senate, to watch floor debate and votes. Lobbyists and interested members of the public arrived early at the office buildings to get a prime seat in high-profile hearings. Advocacy groups and constituents stopped by their representative or senator’s office to meet with staff members or the lawmaker. The cafeterias in the various office buildings were a cacophony of chaos around lunchtime.

That once-bustling environment has been a shadow of itself since early 2020, first as the pandemic raged, and then when the complex was cordoned off with fencing and filled with National Guardsmen in the aftermath of the January 6 attack.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t provided a clear timeframe for reopening the Capitol, but she has expressed some desire to do so: “Pretty soon, I hope,” she said when asked about resuming tours of the building. The decision isn’t up to her, according to her spokesman: It will come from the sergeants-at-arms, in conjunction with the attending physician. The potential for new variants of the virus and a recent spate of cases among vaccinated members and staff could weigh heavily in the decision-making process. 

New cases have fallen by about 75 percent since their peak last month, but deaths have been high in recent weeks following the surge in cases over the holidays. According to the New York Times, “after several weeks of rapid growth, death reports have leveled off at around 2,500 a day, more than at any point of the pandemic except last winter.” Though severe outcomes today are still primarily among the unvaccinated, the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Americans since it began. 

Access to the Capitol is just one part of the pandemic’s nationwide disruption of people’s interactions with the government. (Essential reading: this story about citizenship applications languishing in bureaucratic limbo because required paperwork has been locked away in a network of the federal government’s underground storage caves, which have been largely closed during the pandemic. So is this Twitter thread last week from The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, who listed many of the government facilities that remain closed to the public today.)

It’s difficult to imagine the Capitol looking like its old self any time soon, even as Washington, D.C., is set to abandon its mask and vaccine requirements in many venues in the coming days. 

The few steps toward reopening thus far have been cautious. The Senate sergeant-at-arms announced in December that Senate offices would be allowed to lead two small tours per week through the building. The procedures for the tours are a bit onerous, according to a memo obtained by Roll Call and a Senate office that told The Dispatch the rules are still in place: Tours follow a strict schedule, are limited to 30 minutes each, and only include a few key parts of the building. Guests must complete a health screening before the tour, and staff members have to provide the names of people invited on the tours 24 hours in advance. 

House offices, meanwhile, aren’t officially allowed to conduct tours of the building, although some members and staff still quietly bring visitors to the rotunda. Visitors who have scheduled meetings with offices are allowed in the House office buildings, but congressional staffers have to share the names of guests with the appointment desk and escort them through security.

“I’d like to see the Capitol open safely to tourists again,” Illinois Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi told NBC last week. “A lot of my constituents are asking about visiting, and I think they should be able to visit again.”

The comments came as Democratic governors in several states have moved recently to end mask mandates. (My colleague Audrey has a related piece on the site this morning on how Democrats are handling the messaging of this moment in the pandemic.) 

If rhetoric from Democratic politicians is any indicator, party leaders may be closer to accepting the virus isn’t going to be eradicated. Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat and a physician, penned an op-ed yesterday arguing it’s time “to declare an end to this pandemic.”

He called for continued efforts to encourage Americans to get vaccinated and to receive their booster shots. He also encouraged use of masks when there are flare-ups of respiratory viruses or when people have cold or flu symptoms.

“This doesn’t mean that COVID has disappeared or that we won’t continue to see people get ill, become hospitalized and die from this virus,” he wrote. “There’s no guarantee that we won’t face new variants, some more evasive of our current vaccines or more threatening than Omicron. But as we enter the third year of the pandemic, it’s time we acknowledge that this virus is here to stay, and we must learn how to manage and live with it as we have with other respiratory pathogens.”

On the Floor

The House is out until February 28. The Senate is in this week, and senators are expected to consider legislation to keep the government funded through March 11, as well as a Postal Service reform measure. Senators will also continue working behind the scenes on a package of sanctions to deter Russia from launching a new invasion of Ukraine.

Key Hearings

  • The research and technology panel of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will meet this morning on strengthening the American microelectronics workforce. Information and livestream here.

  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet this morning on protecting youth mental health. Information and livestream here.

  • A House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on the role of immigrant physicians in the American health care system this afternoon. Information and livestream here.

  • Former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell and former American ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul will appear before a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee Wednesday for a hearing on protecting U.S. allies and interests against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Budget Committee will meet to discuss the idea of abolishing the debt ceiling Wednesday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet Thursday morning to examine gaps in America’s biosecurity preparedness. Information and livestream here.

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