Congress, Paranoia and Horse Manure
By Dan K. Thomasson - Capitol Hill Blue
If there is anything Congress knows a lot about, it is horse manure. Huge amounts of it are slung about daily in the chambers and committee rooms of both the House and Senate. In fact, it has been suggested on occasion that there are sufficient quantities of it generated in the average legislative year to produce enough methane to solve the nation's energy problems into perpetuity.
That is all figuratively speaking, of course. But it now looks like no small amount of the real thing will be decorating the grounds outside the Capitol at an annual cleanup cost of more than $50,000. Another $100,000 will be spent each year (and those figures obviously are only temporary, given the natural order of inflation) to care for the six horses responsible for all that waste. The animals will be carrying police officers assigned to crowd control on the Hill's extensive grounds.
The horses and the manure are another byproduct of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America. A new wave of paranoia seems to seize the nation's lawmakers every time someone whispers "al Qaeda" or "Osama." It is in order here to suggest that the Capitol Mounties may be a bit extreme, given the fact that major protests of any kind are kept a quarter mile away at the bottom of the Hill, a considerable distance from where the legislative process is under way. Crowds in that also are in the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia's police force, which is well trained in crowd control. Furthermore, there are a number of other mounted patrols around the city that are available, including one from the National Park Service.
The security mania has resulted in a greatly expanded congressional police force with all the trappings of those of a major city and perhaps more; the closing of an ever-increasing number of streets around the Capitol complex and a growing alarm about the cost of all this to the taxpayers. While no one can argue with the necessity of precautions in this age of terrorist violence, the lawmakers seem determined to accomplish what bin Laden and his sinister forces have wanted all along - to deprive Americans of something they once enjoyed - easy access to their government.
Some of the hassle of trying to visit their personal representatives on either side of the Capitol dome was supposed to have been eased by now by a tourist-friendly center. But because of further security considerations, including a new tunnel to the Library of Congress to match those to the various office buildings, the ambitious underground Visitors Center on the East Front is only two years behind and twice its original estimated cost. What was a reasonable $250 million plus is now expected to cost $558 million, according to recent published reports.
Just for the record, the price of a visitors center when it was first proposed several decades ago was a whole lot less than the original estimates. The concept has come a long way, baby, to use the expression of the flashy former Illinois auctioneer, turned congressman, Rep. Kenneth Grey, whose idea it was for a special place to greet American pilgrims traveling to view the national legislature in action, seek redress and press causes. The first proposed site was old Union Station, but that turned into a valuable commercial asset and the plan for excavating under the plaza was adopted.
But not even the most skittish congressman could have anticipated 9-11. Actually, the security apparatus had become somewhat oppressive long before that. It began in the Vietnam era and has steadily intensified. It has been years since taxis or private vehicles could drive onto the plaza. Now getting near any part of the congressional complex in a car can be a daunting experience and visitors must dodge barricades and anti-bomb planters everywhere.
In the three years since the terrorist assault, the budget for the Capitol Police Department has increased from $173 million to $230 million for the current year, a jump of 32 percent. The number of officers climbed from 1, 201 to 1,758. For every member of the House and Senate there are nearly three police officers. To be fair, the force also has to protect the thousands of congressional workers. Even at that, however, the Capitol's force per citizen far exceeds that of most major cities.
So how does all this go down with Congress' increasing number of self-pronounced fiscal conservatives? Not too well from all indications. But don't expect the spending to stop or even slow down when it comes to their own welfare. Doesn't that make all the financial protests sort of - well, you know - horse manure?
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
December 28, 2004
© Copyright 2004 by Capitol Hill Blue