Members of Congress look to succession in case of disaster

Terrorist attacks prompt bipartisan attention to filling vacancies

March 21, 2002|By Samuel Loewenberg | Samuel Loewenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Forced to confront their own mortality after the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers are drafting plans to quickly fill congressional vacancies if large numbers are killed or incapacitated by another terrorist strike.

More than 130 House members from both parties have signed a letter to the leadership calling for creation of a commission to develop a succession plan within three months.

There is no quick way to replace House members in the event of a disaster. The issue is not as urgent in the Senate, where an empty seat can be filled by an appointment of the state's governor.

Democratic Rep. Brian Baird of Washington state, who came up with the idea for the study panel on vacancies, said he started working on it the night of the September attacks. The next day, he said, he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert, "Of all the things we do, we must do this."

The speaker has not responded to the idea; House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt praised it in a recent speech.

The call for a continuity scheme has drawn the support of two former speakers, Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Thomas S. Foley.

During the Cold War the idea that a significant portion of Congress could be wiped out was a relatively distant possibility, said Foley, but in the aftermath of the recent terrorism it has become much more pressing.

"This is not just fanciful anymore," said Foley. "You don't want in a time of crisis for there to be doubt or confusion about how the country is governed."

The only way to fill an unexpected vacancy in the House is by special election, a process that takes at least three months and often longer. Baird, in a separate proposal, calls for a constitutional amendment giving governors the power to appoint temporary replacements if more than one-quarter of the 435 members were to perish or be unable to carry out their duties.

Because amending the Constitution is a lengthy process, Baird and likeminded colleagues want Congress, as a short-term solution, to pass some interim succession rules.

The desire for continuity after a possible disaster transcends partisan lines, said the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, Christopher Cox of California, who is lobbying Hastert to act on the issue.

Having a functioning Congress in a time of crisis is crucial, said Cox. In the event of a disaster, the legislative branch might need to allocate money, grant the president emergency powers, perhaps declare war.

Even the presidential line of succession is now being given a fresh look. Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California has introduced a bill that would allow the president to designate successors in Congress in the event both he and the vice president were killed.

Under current law, the office automatically transfers to the speaker of the House, followed by the president pro tem of the Senate, who might be from a different party than the president.

Another disaster scenario calls for a virtual Congress. Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, is seeking funds to study how members of the House and Senate could use electronic means to legislate in the event that an attack on the Capitol meant they could not meet in person.

"Circumstances have forced us to think about things we didn't have to think about before," said Cox.

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