On the meeting places of legislatures

September 19, 2011

Greetings from Austin, Texas! Blogging will be spotty over the next few days, as I’m down south coordinating a project that I’m undertaking with some folks at the University of Texas.

After my flight landed mid-day today, I had some time to kill, and I managed to get over to the state capitol for a look around. Touring legislatures is something I’m quite fond of, and I came away quite impressed with the Texas Capitol Building. The architecture of the place is interesting, the grounds are charming, and the people were very friendly. The Rotunda is understated but well done, with portraits of all the past state governors on four levels, each level with a balcony looking down. The floor of the Rotunda features a large Texas star in a circle, with five smaller circles orbiting around it, each with the symbol of the other five nations Texas has been a part of (France, Spain, Mexico, CSA, USA). The House and Senate chambers are impressive, with wonderful paintings of Texas history on the walls and large fraternity-like composites of the Members from each elected legislature, all the way back to Texas independence, a quite stunning touch. The legislative reference library was also well done, and obviously a treat for someone who works at CRS. One thing that sticks out is that the lone star symbol of Texas is seemingly everywhere — on the walls, on the floors, on the backs of chairs, on the door hinges. A little much, but very Texas.  Overall, I’d compare the Capitol favorably with the one state capitol I know very well (Albany) and the six others that I have solid recollections of (Richmond, Hartford, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Providence, and Boston).

The nicest thing about the capitol, however, was something that made me feel sad, or at least very nostalgic: there was minimal security, and our ability to wander around, open doors, and check things out was almost unlimited. The legislature is out of session, and both chambers were wide open, with virtually complete public access except for the actual Members’ desks. We walked around the floor of the House and Senate, circumnavigated the galleries, opened doors to unlabeled rooms, and generally just wandered about. The first few times we went into new places, we checked and made sure we were allowed in when we saw someone working. But later on we didn’t even bother: not only were we allowed everywhere, but in a couple of instances, staff or security offered us facts or comments about what we were looking out.

This stands in stark contrast, of course, to what has happened on Capitol Hill in DC. Security is now perhaps the overriding concern at the Capitol, and it makes both tourist and staff access to the Capitol much, much more difficult. No tourists can simply wander around the Capitol building, and even tour-led access is much more restrictive than even five years ago, prior to the opening of the CVC. Even more to the point, the wonderful lawns around the Capitiol, which are still public access as far as I know, are now designed to implicitly discourage their use as picnic spots: there are few benches, and the new architecture of the CVC, complete with small restraining-like walls, makes them seem more like something you look at than something you sit on. It’s almost unimaginable to think about the Capitol in the 1970′s, when anyone could drive their car onto the East front, park, and go wander around inside.

This is not to say any of this is without good reason; obviously, there are qualitative differences between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Texas Capitol Building, first and foremost being that international plots against state capitol buildings are not only few and far between, but also less serious by an order of magnitude even if (god forbid) they were to occur. Plus the visitor traffic to the Hill is several magnitudes greater than the traffic in Austin; crowd control alone would be a nightmare if open-access to the Capitol were allowed again. And, lest we forget,  it’s not the worst thing to stay on the side of caution in such instances.

And yet there’s an overriding sense when you walk around the Capitol that it has, in some ways, become a fortress. Some Members hate that idea, that the “people’s legislature” has constructed walls between, well, the people and the legislature, and many have fought to keep it as accessible as possible while still being consistent with the security needs. But it’s an uphill fight. The frustrating part for me, as someone who is on the Hill everyday, is how easily the high-security environment becomes completely normal. Despite the massive presence of security on the Hill, you don’t really realize how tight it actually is until you visit a place like the Texas Capitol, with people wandering around and picnicking on the lawn. It shocked me when I saw that staff who work at the Austin Capitol do not need to go through a metal detector to gain access to the building. And then it made me sad that I was shocked by it.

Again, I’m not saying we should scale back Capitol security. I’m in no position to judge. The feeling I have is more one of Burkean regret, that something has changed, and it is something that we will never recapture, because the world is a different place. Truth be told, Hill security was probably in need of an upgrade fifteen years ago; even if it is a bit overdone currently,  prior to the tragic shooting of Capitol Police Officers Chestnut and Gibson in 1998, followed by the would-have-been 9/11 attack on the building, there might have been too little security at the Capitol. And the thought of returning to the wide-open free-for-all of the 1970s and prior is silly, just as it would be silly to take the fence down at the White House and allow people to once again roam the lawn.

Still, it was such a wonderful feeling to walk unimpeded around the Texas Capitol today, observing the institutions of democracy at our own pace, in our own way, that it made me long for the ability of people to do the same in Washington. We stood in the Texas House chamber and pondered the ideals and shortcomings of a republic, the debates and representatives who shaped a state and and a nation, and the future of such institutions, both state and federal. And I like to think it had an effect on me, in a way that no guided-tour of the Capitol Visitor Center ever could. That this experience was once available in Washington, and no longer is, is cause for reflection and, yes, sadness. It may be a necessary loss, but it is a loss nonetheless.

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One Response to On the meeting places of legislatures

  1. Of Deadlocks and Dark Horses | Matt Glassman on February 27, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    [...] I was here (September) I took a fabulous tour of the state capitol building, which inspired this post on legislative security, or the lack thereof. Austin is, of course, named for Stephen F. Austin, who managed to make it [...]

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