Will the 'People's House' become less accessible?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives is meant to be easily accessible to ordinary Americans.

After all, it's known as the "People's House."

A day after the shooting that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., there were no immediate moves to wall off other lawmakers from public access, but as Capitol police urged members to report any suspicions or concerns to a threat assessment team, constituents from across the country worried it could ultimately have a chilling effect on their own access to their elected representatives — in Congress or even at the state and local level.

Some have counted for years on being able to speak to Washington lawmakers when they're in town, or to walk into their district offices to see aides without an appointment, and to talk about their concerns face-to-face.

"It's important we have easy access. We're the ones that elect them, and we need to be able to express our wants and needs," said Mauricio Suarez of Daytona Beach, Fla.

Suarez and his wife, originally from Colombia, for years sought and received help from the office of Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., as they went through the U.S. citizenship process. As recently as last fall, when they finally became citizens and wanted to drop in and say thanks, they've been able to freely walk into his district office.

Others said their lawmakers already are too inaccessible. Some complained they don't respond to their letters or calls. Or that they don't spend enough time out and about in their districts. Or that they're distracted by fundraising pressures. Or that they're too wealthy to have anything in common with the people they're supposed to represent.

Or that in the hyper-partisan climate, they don't feel they have equal access if they have differing political views.

"I haven't felt like he's really in touch," Jennifer Thompson, a Republican voter from Newport News, Va., said of her congressman, Democrat Bobby Scott.

If the tragedy does expose any real need for beefed-up congressional security nationwide, several voters said Sunday they'd be willing to spend tax dollars for small security details, or to go through metal detectors or random bag checks at town-hall meetings or district offices.

But they don't want their lawmakers to use the incident as cover to avoid dealing directly with the people they represent.

"I think it should stay the same," said Kathleen King of Aberdeen, Md. "I think (the Arizona shooting) was just a fluke."

Over the years, lawmakers haven't substantially walled themselves off from constituents in the face of other acts of violence. Unlike presidents, who live in a security bubble, lawmakers take commercial flights home and, with the exception of congressional leaders, typically don't travel with security attachments.

As of Sunday, several lawmakers said they should resist any temptation to change now.

"This is an isolated incident by a deranged person similar to other tragic shootings at post offices, schools, places of work," said Freshman Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, who was elected last fall with tea party backing. "I don't believe extra security measures are warranted, nor that political rhetoric had anything to do with it."

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the vice chairman of the Republican Conference, said on Fox News Sunday that she's "concerned about putting up more walls between myself and the people that I represent."

She said that being responsive by phone, e-mail and in person is part of the job, and that it's "fundamental to our representative government that people feel they can interact with us and their voices are heard throughout the process."

Learning of the Arizona shooting made Suarez "a little more hesitant" about the notion of approaching a politician out in public, he said, because of concerns he could become collateral damage if a deranged individual is trying to hurt the politician.

Kevin Shilko, of Shrewsbury, Pa., said the latest debate is "just a statement of the time we're living in." About five years ago, he went to his state representative's office for help with a military recognition for his deceased father, and the lawmaker met with him in person. In retrospect, Shilko recalls how there'd been no screening and he'd just walked in.

"I always carry a pocketknife," he said. "And nothing was said about that."

(David Goldstein contributed to this article.)


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