Nearly a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in hopes of preventing Congress from certifying his 2020 election victory, President Joe Biden has signed legislation to allow the US Capitol Police to call in emergency backup from national guard soldiers if required to restore order on the Capitol grounds.
The White House on Wednesday announced that Mr Biden had signed into law the Capitol Police Emergency Assistance Act of 2021, which amends legislation enacted after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon to allow “executive departments and executive agencies” to assist the Capitol Police “in the performance of its duties by providing services … when requested by the Capitol Police Board”.
Under that 2001 measure, only the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms could only request assistance from other federal departments or agencies in an emergency for their respective chambers. Any request for help made by the Capitol Police had to be submitted in advance and in writing by the Capitol Police Board.
The new legislation would allow Capitol to request assistance unilaterally after it took hours for the DC National Guard to arrive on Capitol Hill during the 6 January insurrection by former President Donald Trump’s supporters.
But the National Guard did not arrive at the Capitol complex for hours. The new legislation would allow the chief of police to request assistance from federal authorities without the approval of the Capitol Police Board “if the Chief of the Capitol Police has determined that the provision of assistance is necessary to prevent the significant disruption of governmental function and public order within the United States Capitol Buildings and Grounds,” the text says.
The Capitol Police Board is a three-member body which is composed of the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms and the presidentially appointed and senate-confirmed Architect of the Capitol. It has been charged with supervising operations of the Capitol Police since the late 19th century.
But that archaic and unorthodox leadership structure, a by-product of the byzantine power dynamics which stem from the bicameral structure of the US congress and the autonomy granted to each chamber under the US constitution, has long been criticized for blurring lines of accountability and making it difficult for Congress to conduct oversight of the department charged with its protection.
The byzantine setup of the Capitol Police board was also a factor in delaying the Capitol Police’s request for assistance on 6 January because all three members needed to approve it before it was passed along to the Defence Department, according to testimony from the former House and Senate sergeants at arms at a February hearing before the Senate Rules Committee.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the committee’s chairman and the lead sponsor of the bill signed into law by Mr Biden, said at the time that the Capitol Police chief would need to be given “some greater ability to make decisions leading into a crisis”.
“The image of the chief trying to reach the two sergeants-at-arms while they are trying to protect the members is not one you want to repeat again,” Ms Klobuchar said.
During the insurrection, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both tried to ask the army to deploy the National Guard. One report said that the US Army tried to resist Washington DC’s request for the National Guard ahead of 6 January.
The legislation was bipartisan and was sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, and retiring Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. Other sponsors included Democratic Senators Alex Padilla of California, Mark Warner of Virginia, Dianne Feinstein of California, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Independent Sen Angus King and Republican Sens Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
Under the provisions of the new law, which passed both the House and Senate by unanimous consent last week, the chief of the Capitol Police can now request emergency assistance from other agencies if he or she “has determined that the provision of assistance is necessary to prevent the significant disruption of governmental function and public order within the United States Capitol Buildings and Grounds”.
It also will allow the Capitol Police chief make emergency appointments of “any law enforcement officer from any Federal agency or State or local government agency” or “any member of the uniformed services, including members of the National Guard” as a special officer of the US Capitol Police for the duration of that emergency, and for the first time will give the Senate Rules Committee and House Administration Committee the power to require Capitol Police Board members to attend an annual joint oversight hearing.
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