The Sergeant at Arms is perhaps most famous for being the guy at the State of the Union Address who shouts “Mister (or Madam) Speaker, the President of the United States!” But what does the Sergeant at Arms do the rest of the year?
The Sergeant at Arms traces its roots all the way back to the Roman Empire, where senior officers of state chose 12 patricians to act as bodyguards and serve police functions. These men had very few limits on their powers to arrest or use violence; they answered to no legal authority but their own master. King Phillip II of France borrowed this idea and formed a small, special corps of men, armed with decorated battle maces, to guard him when he traveled the Holy Land during the Crusades. The notion of a small cadre of police/guards found its way from France to England, via the Norman lords, as did the French name for the guards, sergent, from the Latin servientum (“servant, one who serves”).
In 1279, King Edward I of England formed a group of 20 men to act as the first royal bodyguard in England, Anglicizing the French sergent and naming them the Sergeants at Arms. The sergeants served various other functions for their king and counted among their responsibilities the arrest of traitors and the collection of debts. A little over a century later, the House of Commons received its own Sergeant at Arms* and since then, these officers have almost always been associated with legislative bodies.
Both houses of the United States Congress adopted the office of Sergeant at Arms in 1798. In the House of Representatives, the Sergeant at Arms’ chief task is maintaining order and decorum on the floor of the chamber. To that end, he is authorized to “display” the silver and ebony Mace of the United States House of Representatives – a visual reminder of Congress’ authority – as a warning to behave and use the mace in the aisles of the House Chamber to “subdue” disorderly conduct. Congress has also used the Sergeant at Arms as something of a bounty hunter/hall monitor in the past, dispatching him to retrieve absent representatives and bring them to House sessions, sometimes even escort them directly to their seat in the chamber.
The Sergeant at Arms’ role in the security of the House is reviewing and implementing security measures related to the Capitol and House Office Buildings. His office secures, limits access to, and performs sweeps of the House Floor and Gallery, oversees and secures the Visitors Desk and Parking Garage and administrates the distribution of all representatives’ and staff’s identification badges.
* There’s some debate over how Parliament got its own Sergeant at Arms. One theory holds that the appointment was a scheme concocted by the King to extend his power over the legislature. Another suggests that the officer was requested so that the legislators could enforce parliamentary privilege and have the Sergeant exercise royal authority through the instructions of the Speaker. Yet another says that since Parliament met at the King’s home, the Palace at Westminster, in its early days, His Majesty originally loaned some Sergeants out as door-keepers to the Parliamentary meetings.