Congress to crack down on drunken Capitol parties

Police: Too much partying on Capitol Hill
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Police: Too much partying on Capitol Hill 01:59

Washington (CNN)Top congressional leaders agreed to back law enforcement officials' plan to rein in the celebrations on the U.S. Capitol -- including on the Fourth of July. The parties have at times spiraled out of control in recent years, prompting action from enforcement officials.

As CNN first reported in early March, the U.S. Capitol Police Board sent a letter to congressional leaders in calling for the changes, citing security concerns, mounting overtime costs and an abundance of "coolers containing liquids" -- a euphemism for alcohol.
The letter also said the changes were needed "in light of the current heightened threat environment" and "to reduce the potential for a breach of decorum or conduct that could prove embarrassing to the Congress."
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said April 21 their board's recommendations would strengthen safety and security protocols surrounding the concerts. They also pledged to improve the access and the experience for the country's wounded warriors, who are have been honored with special receptions and tours in recent years, a tradition started in 2007 by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
    "The Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts at the Capitol are great national tributes to America and its heroes. Every year, our goal is to make these events as safe and accessible as possible, especially for our veterans, service members and military families," the two leaders said in a statement.
    "To that end, we fully support the Capitol Police Board's recommendations and will implement them in advance of this year's events. The safety and security of our guests remains our paramount concern, and these changes will allow us to continue honoring these holidays in a manner consistent with the dignity and history of the Capitol," they said.
    Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill told CNN the Democratic leader also supports the changes.
    "Leader Pelosi supports the implementation of the recommendations the Capitol Police Board," he said. "Leader Pelosi, as was the case when she was speaker, is always mindful of the security needs of the Capitol and its guests, and of the importance of ensuring that our wounded veterans are provided the opportunity to fully enjoy Memorial Day and the 4th of July at the Capitol."
    Authorities were concerned the parties, hosted by lawmakers, their staffs and organizers of a nationally televised concert and fireworks display, have grown increasingly rowdy and potentially dangerous in recent years.
    During Independence Day celebrations last year, the Capitol was overrun with heavy drinking party-goers. Congress isn't in session during these holidays but many members stay in town to attend the concerts and parties along with government dignitaries as well as the entertainers, television producers and corporate sponsors of the concerts.
    The plan agreed to by Boehner and McConnell would include upgrading safety and security protocols for the concerts similar to those of other large-scale Capitol events, such as the annual State of the Union Address or dignitary visits for a joint meeting; limiting access to the Capitol building to members of Congress, invited guests and authorized staff; hosting wounded service members and their families for a pre-concert reception in the Capitol and VIP Capitol tour; and maintaining the tradition of hosting them on the speaker's balcony during the concerts, among other things.
    The smaller pre-concert event in the Capitol for wounded warriors would also include the joint chiefs of staff, according to a senior House GOP leadership aide.
    At the urging of the Police Board, the post-concert receptions at Capitol -- the scene that caused the most security concerns -- will no longer take place. The board recommended those be moved to the U.S. Botanic Gardens, a glass-encased, greenhouse-type building at the edge of the Capitol grounds, so that fewer police officers would be needed to screen guests coming into the Capitol when the concerts end.
    Boehner and McConnell have offered to allow the concert organizers host a reception at an alternative venue, such as Botanical Gardens or somewhere else, the aide told CNN.
    Concert organizers Capitol Concert could not be immediately reached for comment on the recommendations.
    The March letter, from the officials charged with protecting the U.S. Capitol, was a startling acknowledgement of how much the security situation had deteriorated during these events. The parties gained a reputation in recent years of being wild and freewheeling and while there have been no arrests, there have been falls and injuries that were blamed on excessive drinking, according to a congressional source who said there was a near fall from a balcony that could have been catastrophic.
    The new moves would lower the number of people attending parties in offices on balconies and other places in the Capitol overlooking the West Front grounds.
    Boehner and McConnell said they would continue to consult with the Police Board and other leaders as the process of adopting the changes moves forward.