Rep. Burton: Secure Congress From Undetected Explosives

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) will introduce legislation next week to have a glass shield put around the House gallery to prevent an explosive device being thrown onto the House floor.

Burton has been trying for 25 years to get Congress to pass his legislation. But in the wake of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), he hopes the Leadership will now see the need for the shield.

“We have State of the Union in a couple weeks,” said Burton of the January 25 speech by President Obama in the House. “The House chamber is the one place where we are all together at the same time — the President, the Vice President, the Supreme Court, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,  all of the Cabinet officials, all of the Members of Congress and Senate.”

“Think of the horror if someone got in the gallery with an explosive device and detonated in in that meeting,” he said. “Think of the chaos it would cause to the seat of government and what it would do to the country. You could end of up with martial law.”

Burton points out that while visitors go through magnetometers to get into the House galleries, the more threatening plastic explosive devices cannot be detected. (The House galleries are the viewing boxes that overlook the House floor.)

“The metal detectors will not detect plastic explosives,” said Burton. “Why do you think airport security is patting you down now? And the airports are protecting 200 people on a plane. What about the entire seat of government?”

As long as he has been in Congress, Burton has been tirelessly asking for the Leaders to consider the threat of plastic explosive devices on the Congress as a whole. The most recent version of his bill proposed to “enclose the visitors’ galleries of the House of Representatives with a transparent and substantial material.”

Burton points out that such a barrier, which would likely be made of Plexiglas, is already used in Israel’s parliament. “They have a shield in the Knesset because they worry about someone throwing something down, and that was a prudent thing for them to do.”

He said that his decision to re-introduce the bill is not a rash decision after the horrific shooting spree in Arizona on Saturday.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction for Plexiglas safety device. I’ve been talking about it for 25 years — even before 9/11 — I could always see that it was a threat,” he said.

He has lobbied both Republican and Democrat leaders all these years for the shield. “I’ve talked to every Speaker and Majority and Minority Leader for 25 years about this. And I still think its more of a risk than ever.”

Burton’s staff is updating the legislation, including adding the constitutional authority clause, and will introduce it next week. 

Also, he plans to ask House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to support the plan. Last year, he asked former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her support, but she gave him the runaround. 

“I talked to Speaker Pelosi four moths ago — before the election — and said we really need to look into it,” said Burton. “Pelosi told me on the floor that she would appoint a committee to see if it was feasible. I haven’t heard back from her.”

Burton’s bill will most likely be assigned to the Committee on House Administration. However, Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) does not support the measure.

“Mr. Lungren does not support the Burton bill to put protective glass around the gallery. He didn’t support it in the 111th Congress and still does not,” said Committee Communications Director Salley Wood.

Wood also said Lungren is “troubled by the suggestion that Members need to be hermetically sealed from their constituents.”

Burton is aware of the criticisms of the glass being a barrier between the Members of Congress and the American people.

“It is the ‘people’s house,’ the glass doesn’t change that. But we need to plan ahead to prevent tragedies. We can’t wait until the horse is out of the barn,” said Burton.

He also does not believe the glass barrier, however constructed, would significantly change visitors’ viewing experience.

“If you put a visible shield, they can still hear and see. They may even hear better with improved acoustics. I don’t see how it would impair the visitors,” he said.

Burton’s bill states that the House will also “install equipment so that the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives will be clearly audible in the galleries.”

Also, Burton points out that he’s not encouraging barriers to constituents in home districts; he’s only trying to protect the Members when they are all in the same place.

“Individual Congressman, Senators, and the President will still have that kind of threat. But when the leaders of the entire country are all together at one time, aren’t we going to protect them?”

Burton has not changed his own public schedule. “I’m still having town meetings.  I don’t want to impede public right to have meetings with their Congressman,” said Burton.

Burton is a gun collector and has a permit in both Indiana and Virginia, where he lives when Congress is in session.  He would not get into specifics about how often he carries his gun, but said, “I like the ability to have something to protect myself, my staff, and my family.”

He said individual Congressmen need to be responsible for their own safety. “I worry about this sort of thing, and so do all elected officials,” he said, referring to the Giffords shooting.  “You need to keep your antenna up and protect yourself.”