Photo of Ted CaseThe fencing, it appeared, had been taken down, making Capitol Hill look less like a fortress.

It had been three years since I was near the U.S. Capitol—a pandemic and one insurrection keeping me 2,818 miles away. Yet, with much anticipation, I returned in May for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s Legislative Conference with a small group of Oregon co-op leaders.

While Capitol Hill no longer looked like a heavily fortified Green Zone, it was a far different place than I had worked in and around for nearly two decades.

Navigating the House and Senate office buildings was tricky. Entrances I once passed through with ease were sealed off. We were escorted by congressional aides, with the coronavirus and the events of January 6, 2021, leaving everyone a bit shellshocked. We walked curiously by the offices of the committee investigating the attack, the windows taped up to ensure secrecy.

“If those walls could talk,” an aide said.

The U.S. House of Representatives was in recess, so we met with young, whip-smart aides in congressional office buildings that felt hollow, like a giant university on spring break. I was told many congressional offices were still working remotely, which may never change.

Our final appointment of the day was with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in the U.S. Capitol building. As we approached, our group looked in awe at the giant dome.

I worked in the building long ago, a 25-year-old legislative assistant hanging out in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives as if it were a common workplace. I had little perspective back then, but even if the politics were rough, I never recall thinking the other party was the enemy.

It has taken me to the twilight of my career to fully appreciate that opportunity to be part of the democratic process. But last month, it was not the Capitol I remembered.

There were several new levels of security and a new level of tension. Though I’d never mastered the intricate passageways, I knew we were near the same spot where Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman led the rioters away from the Senate chamber to protect the lives of our elected officials. While there were no indications the building had been sacked and five people died, I could feel something had changed. The corridor was hushed. No one in our group said a word.

Our meeting was in the old Senate office of Lyndon Johnson, a politician from a bygone era of bipartisan dealmaking before the nation was painted red and blue. Sen. Merkley graciously showed us the view of the Supreme Court out the window.

For a capital—and a country—attempting to move beyond the January 6 siege, there were clear signs the issues dividing us are not easily bridged.

A draft Supreme Court decision on abortion leaked the night before, and protestors descended upon Capitol Hill. We saw an unscalable fence being built around the Supreme Court, a fragile and shaken symbol of democracy again hidden behind walls. Like a fortress.

Executive Director Ted Case