WASHINGTON – It’s something that goes along with being a member of Congress, no matter your party or your status: constant threats to your life, and the unshakeable feeling that they're only getting worse.
In the almost two years since the Capitol insurrection, in which supporters of former President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol and hunted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of Congress, threats to lawmakers and their families have increased sharply. Early Friday, an assailant looking for Pelosi broke into her San Francisco home and used a hammer to attack her husband Paul, who suffered blunt-force injuries and was hospitalized.
It is, in fact, getting worse: The U.S. Capitol Police investigated almost 10,000 threats to members last year, more than twice the number from four years earlier.
“We are 100%, completely vulnerable and the risks are increasing,” says Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Chicago-area Democrat. “If someone wants to harm you, they know where you live, they know where you work.”
Lawmakers have pressured congressional leaders and the Capitol Police for better security, especially for their families and their homes outside of Washington. They have made some progress, with security officials promising to pay for upgrades to certain security systems and an increased Capitol Police presence outside Washington. But the vast majority of members are mostly on their own as they figure out how to keep themselves and their families safe in a country where political violence has become alarmingly frequent.
The attack on Paul Pelosi happened when Nancy Pelosi was out of town, which meant there was less of a security presence in their home.
“It’s attacks like this that make all of us stand back and wonder what we can do better,” says Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who was at a baseball practice four years ago in Alexandria, Virginia, when a gunman wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and four other people.
Davis, who was defeated for reelection in his Republican primary earlier this year, says security needs to be improved for members and their families, and “we also have to work to tone down some of the violent rhetoric that inspires some of these individuals to do what they do.”
As have many of their colleagues, Davis and Quigley both say they have improved security at their homes in recent years. Two years after the baseball shooting, an Illinois man was arrested for threatening to shoot Davis in the head. Randall Tarr pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to probation.
Davis has since urged his colleagues to report all threats to the police and work with local prosecutors to make sure people are charged. “You’ve got to take that threat seriously,” he says.
Incidents like that are disturbingly common. On Friday, just hours after the assault on Pelosi, the Justice Department announced that a man pleaded guilty to making threatening telephone calls to an unidentified California congressman’s office and saying he had “a lot of AR-15s” and wanted to kill the congressman and members of his staff.
In July, a man accosted New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican who is running for governor of New York, as he spoke at a campaign event and told Zeldin, “You’re done.” Zeldin wrestled the man to the ground and escaped with only a minor scrape.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., revealed earlier this year that a man came to her house with a gun, screaming obscenities. After the incident, she wrote congressional leaders a letter and asked them to do more to keep members safe.
Lawmakers have received some upgraded security since the Jan. 6 insurrection. In July, the House Sergeant at Arms sent a letter to all House offices saying that members could have up to $10,000 reimbursed for security upgrades in their homes, including intrusion detection systems, cameras, locks and lighting. But in reality, sophisticated security can cost much more.
And some members do get added security, if there are serious threats. Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders have Capitol Police security with them at all times, as do members who are deemed to be most vulnerable at any given time. That security apparatus doesn’t always extend to families when the member isn’t at home, however, making spouses like Paul Pelosi more vulnerable.
Members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection also have round-the-clock protection. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chair of the committee, issued a statement Friday urging "federal agencies and law enforcement to redouble their efforts to protect officials, our elections, and our democracy in the days ahead.”
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on that committee, recently released menacing voicemails he had received threatening his wife and baby. Kinzinger tweeted Friday after Paul Pelosi’s assault that “every GOP candidate and elected official must speak out, and now.”
Republican Rep. Davis also urged his colleagues, Democrat and Republican, to condemn the attack.
“The attack on Paul Pelosi is not only an attack on Nancy Pelosi and her family,” Davis said. “It’s an attack on all of us.”