Essential Politics: A rise in threats is forcing lawmakers to balance safety and accessibility
Good morning and welcome to today’s Essential Politics newsletter.
First, a little programming news to get out of the way: This will be my last regular edition of Essential Politics. It’s been a wonderful year writing this newsletter, but I’m moving on to other projects within The Times. I’m a big believer that context and nuance are just as important to understanding politics and government as the latest headlines, and I hope I’ve helped you think about the world in new ways. We’ll continue to publish on Wednesdays and Fridays, bringing you fresh analysis from The Times’ Washington staff.
Now for today’s news: My colleague Sarah D. Wire reports this week that threats against members of Congress are skyrocketing. The trend has been growing for some time, but law enforcement have reported a serious spike in the last few years.
Some of these security threats are ones that were widely reported — the Jan. 6 insurrection, the 2017 shooting of Republican members of Congress and staffers at a practice for the Congressional Baseball Game, the 2011 shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
But there are plenty of incidents lawmakers don’t talk about, they tell Sarah: death threats, harassing videos, dead rats left on doorsteps. Some lawmakers feel they must chose between being accessible to their constituents and personal safety.
The rise in threats is also posing new challenges for Capitol Police, as they forge closer ties with the FBI and open satellite offices outside the capital for the first time.
I spoke to Sarah about this trend and how it is affecting lawmakers. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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Why did you think this was an important story to tell?
I’ve noticed an increase in the number of members walking around Capitol Hill with security details in the last few years, and last June, I started to look at how many people were being taken to court for threatening a member of Congress. But members being trailed by security didn’t want to talk about it, and the story got pushed to the back burner. After Jan. 6, members were a lot more open with reporters, albeit on background, about what they were experiencing, and I thought it would be worth trying again.
I imagine people are nervous to talk about this issue. How did you approach reporting it out?
I started with the members who have been vocal in the past, namely Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who sends out a press release when someone is convicted for threatening her, and other high-profile members, but I realized quickly that the people who receive the most threats were the ones least likely to speak with me. Knowing how many threats are investigated each year, I decided to focus on slightly lower-profile members who might be dealing with threats more quietly. Between April and September, I asked several dozen members to talk on the record.
Because threats aren’t discussed openly on Capitol Hill, it was difficult to get a firm grasp on how the number had changed. I wanted 10 to 15 years of data, and Capitol Police would only give me five. Court records largely avoid identifying which members of Congress were the target of the threat, so I had to scour court transcripts and press releases for incidents when members were inadvertently identified.
When I interviewed Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) for another story, she had recalled some of her experiences with being threatened over her online interaction with the Salvadoran president, and I knew speaking with her again would be a priority.
It’s interesting that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are receiving threats. What do you think that says about the problem?
One member described it to me like this: In the past, someone frustrated with government might just grumble about their representative being a jerk over a beer at the corner bar. But now, that grumbling happens online, behind a veil of anonymity, and there is social pressure to one-up each other. At some point, people take it too far. What stood out in court records was how many people defended the threats they had made as blowing off steam.
Did your sources have any thoughts about how to address this trend?
Nothing hard and fast that can be easily applied. One member asked me to emphasize that threatening a government official is a felony, in the hopes that it might cause people to think twice before leaving a heated voicemail or sending an angry email. Others blamed their colleagues for encouraging supporters to confront elected officials in public; some blamed the spectacle of cable news and the drive to say outlandish things on social media to get attention.
Everyone seemed to recognize that Capitol Police cannot be expected to investigate all of these threats alone or provide a security detail for every single member. Congress did provide more money for training and working on relationships with the FBI and local police in an effort to help identify serious threats. But no one had an easy answer to give me.
Anything else you want to tell readers about what you learned?
It was particularly surprising to me how little members knew about the threats their colleagues faced. In some ways, I thought at the beginning of this story that maybe they were talking to each other but not to the press or public about it, because they didn’t want to appear vulnerable. But members were aghast to hear what their colleagues were going through and appalled to hear how much the number of threats had increased.
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The view from Washington
— Democrats’ plan to enact an ambitious remodel of the nation’s social safety net programs is facing new hurdles on Capitol Hill amid deep divisions over the scope of the package, its cost and what can be included under the Senate’s stringent rules, Jennifer Haberkorn writes.
— The U.S. military on Friday acknowledged that its last airstrike in Afghanistan before the U.S. withdrawal was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, reports Tracy Wilkinson.
— When power in Washington is split between Democrats and Republicans, chances are good that lawmakers will reach an impasse over what once was a routine part of the budget process: raising the federal debt limit. Jon Healey has the story on what happens if they don’t address it.
— Also from Wilkinson: President Biden went before the annual U.N. General Assembly this week on a mission to restore credibility and trust in the U.S. as a reliable global partner after a series of disparate crises. Chris Megerian has the details on Biden’s speech Tuesday, in which he promised “relentless diplomacy” to address global challenges like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
— From Janet Hook: Young voters turned out in force for Democrats in 2020. Will they stick around?
— Biden plans to announce that the United States will double the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses it is donating to the global inoculation effort, write Megerian and Erin B. Logan.
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The view from California
— After surviving the recall, could Gov. Gavin Newsom be president? Not with Vice President Kamala Harris next in line, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.
— Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said Monday that if elected mayor, he will pursue a ballot measure to double the number of City Council districts — while also slashing the salaries of each council member.
— Homelessness is the top issue for voters in the 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race, and candidates are heading to areas with encampments to address the crisis and announce their solutions. It’s not going how some of them planned, writes Dakota Smith.
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