WASHINGTON — The congressional inquiry into the security failures surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol assault has barely begun, but one outcome already seems certain: The Capitol Police Board, the secretive three-member panel that oversees protection of the complex where Congress meets, is headed for major changes, if not outright elimination.
Lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate, some previously unfamiliar with the sweeping authority of the board, have expressed astonishment at its lack of accountability and its inability to rapidly respond to the riot at the Capitol.
“It seems nonfunctioning to me,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, which controls money for Capitol security. “Nobody is in charge. When something goes wrong, no one has the ultimate responsibility.”
Like many things on Capitol Hill, the board is a remnant of the past that has survived in large part because it suits those who hold power in Congress. A long line of House and Senate leaders in both parties have favored its existence because they handpick two of the three of its voting members, giving them tremendous influence over security operations with little public scrutiny.
disarray and inaction on Jan. 6 and in the days leading up to the riot.
Under the current system, the board has broad authority for Capitol security and the police force and consists of the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate, who are chosen by the leader of each chamber, and the architect of the Capitol, the Senate-confirmed official responsible for buildings and other facilities on the grounds. The chief of the Capitol Police, who must be approved by the board, is a nonvoting member.
At House and Senate hearings in recent days, lawmakers have been struck by the fact that two days before the attack, members of the board dismissed a Capitol Police request for National Guard troops to be on hand on Jan. 6 based on a rising threat identified by intelligence. They acted with no vote, little discussion or consultation with other authorities and no involvement by the architect of the Capitol. Board members then struggled to connect during the riot to agree to declare an emergency so that troops who were standing by to assist could be summoned to the Capitol.
“If the police chief feels he doesn’t have the authority to even call in the National Guard in the middle of an insurrection and has to call two people in the middle of doing their jobs guarding members, we have a problem,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, which is investigating the assault with the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “You need a different structure, or you at least need a very clear line of authority that allows the police chief to make these decisions.”
The Capitol Police force was formed in 1828 and the board was created in 1867, when the supervision of the police was shifted from the commissioner of public buildings to the sergeants-at-arms of the two chambers. The board’s role has remained fairly consistent since, with the Senate and House officials granted wide responsibility for overseeing the police, the Capitol grounds and the safety of lawmakers.