The tragic and shocking murders in Tucson, Ariz., have not surprisingly set off (actually renewed) a debate about security in Congress.
The Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol have been reviewing and fine-tuning their security in and around the Capitol. Other entities in the House and Senate have been examining and strengthening the evacuation plans for Congress in the event of a larger attack. Individual Members of Congress, as we have heard and read repeatedly this past week-plus, are suffering angst about how they can maintain their hands-on contact with constituents and still feel protected from potential harm — and whether any enhanced security will deter their constituents from showing up at town hall meetings or other public sessions.
The concerns are real, and commendable. I am delighted to see the focus go back to security and equally delighted that we are having a real debate over how to balance openness and accessibility — linchpins of our democracy — with necessary security. But I am even more frustrated that this latest tragedy has seemingly done little or nothing to get a real and meaningful focus on the larger problem: Why do we have no tangible and workable plans in place to maintain a functioning, viable and representative Congress if and when a larger terrorist attack takes place?
This is a familiar refrain, one I have sung repeatedly for more than nine years. But since we have so many new Members, it is time to do it again. Here are the basic facts:
On 9/11, the core framework of the American constitutional system barely dodged a jetliner bullet. If United Flight 93 had left Newark, N.J., on time instead of 45 minutes late, its passengers would not have learned that their plane was a suicide vehicle. They likely would have reacted the same way as the passengers on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and sat tight through the hijacking. The plane would have hit the cast-iron Dome of the Capitol around the same time as a plane hit the Pentagon.
The House was in morning business, and hundreds of Members were in or around the Capitol, many outside on the lawn or on the steps. Plane debris, burning jet fuel, molten iron, chunks of marble and concrete would have rained down on a large area. Very likely, hundreds of lawmakers would have died, gone missing for long periods, or ended up in intensive care units for months.
The Constitution is clear that neither chamber of Congress can do any official business without a quorum, which is half its Members. Vacancies in the House can be filled only by special election, and even in the best of circumstances, individual special elections tend to take about four months. Imagine how long it would take if the country were reeling from a devastating attack and needed hundreds of special elections all at once.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.