Jan 17, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guardsmen are seen behind new high fencing as both protect the U.S. Capitol behind them.

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.

Lawmakers aren't alone — congressional reporters were sharing tips over the weekend about the best place to buy helmets, body armor and gas masks, so they could cover the inauguration.

  • The consensus was Full Metal Jacket, a shop on Dove Street in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Capitol is more secure, but lawmakers are on edge and harbor concerns about their personal safety outside the newly fortified building.

Why it matters: Senate and House members and their staffs have seen an increase in online death threats. Combined with post-traumatic stress from the Capitol assault and images of two senators being accosted at airports, both Democrats and Republicans are rethinking constituent engagement and ways to protect themselves and their families.

  • Torres said: "My constituents recognize me even with a mask. They mean well. ... I just have those terrible fears — you don't know who's a friend or who's not."
  • McGovern said: "If it means that when I do a town hall I need to have police presence there, we'll probably end up doing that. But I'm not gonna not have a town hall."

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said reports of off-duty police officers' participation in the storming of the U.S. Capitol left him on edge as he considered asking local police for protection at home. The former New York City councilman once investigated a local police officer who allegedly posted racist remarks in a chat room frequented by other city law enforcement officers.

  • "Do I trust that the NYPD has a vested interest in ensuring my safety?" Torres told Axios. "I have my doubts."
  • A police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The assault on the Capitol by hundreds of pro-Trump supporters gave every member of Congress a firsthand look at the country's bitter political divide.

  • Norma Torres was watching the election certification proceedings from the gallery a level above the House floor. As she and her colleagues were evacuated, they passed several rioters lying face down as they were detained by officers at gunpoint.

The Capitol has since been surrounded by 8-foot-high fencing, and its perimeter is patrolled by National Guard troops. Inside, members must pass through metal detectors to enter the House chamber. The new concern is about safety at home.

  • Norma Torres had moved her D.C. residence to a place with less auto traffic but now she's thinking about moving again into a larger apartment building with a secure entrance.
  • "Maybe it's the trauma that I'm still feeling, but I purchased a vest to protect myself at the inauguration and I'm encouraging all my colleagues to do the same thing," she said.

A spokeswoman for Kinzinger said: "We are taking the threats we receive seriously and filing them to the appropriate authorities where necessary."

Rep. Lisa Rochester Blunt (D-Del.) told Axios she's adopted a "conscious but not consumed" approach to her personal safety — including not speaking publicly about how she may safely commute from her home to Washington.

  • "I'm not trying to be all public about how I get there or don't get there, especially in this moment," she said.
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