The recent tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) has revealed a serious flaw in our constitutionally mandated system that needs to be remedied. As it stands now, the Constitution permits any mad gunman or group of terrorists to change the outcome of votes in Congress.
Since the January attack on Gabby Giffords, the 8th district of Arizona has been without a vote in the House of Representatives. Her recovery, which we all fervently hope for, is expected to take months. In the meantime, the acts of one disturbed individual have deprived more than 800,000 people of their rightful vote in Congress.
Earlier this year, more than 200 Republican Members of the House gathered for a Congressional retreat in Baltimore. If there had been a successful terrorist attack on that meeting, enough Congressmen could have been killed or disabled to permit the Democrats to reverse the verdict of the last election and claim a majority in the House. An extensive enough attack could even leave a very few Members of Congress with the power to make laws for the entire country.
In the Senate, although the Constitution permits the rapid filling of a seat that is vacated by death or resignation, it offers no help when a Senator is disabled for months at a time because of illness or injury. In addition, when a Senate seat becomes vacant, the Constitution permits broad latitude to a governor to appoint a replacement, creating the possibility that a governor could change the makeup of the Senate by appointing someone very different from the Senator who was elected, who may even be from the opposite party. In short, under current law we are incredibly vulnerable as individuals, but also the democratic nature of our system is vulnerable.
I have introduced a constitutional amendment, H.J.Res. 26, to remedy this constitutional flaw. Under my proposal, just as we currently elect a president together with his chosen vice president who can take over the Oval Office in case of the death or disability of the president, we would elect alternate Senators and Representatives who could maintain the continuity of the elected Senators and Representatives when necessary.
Under my Congressional succession constitutional amendment, we would maintain the principle that no one casts a vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives who has not been elected by the citizens of the district and extend that principle to the Senate as well. At the same time, we would greatly reduce the ability of terrorists, epidemics, airplane crashes or even errant e-mailed pictures to change the outcome of Congressional votes. My amendment would not restrict the ability of states to hold special elections to permanently replace departed representatives. But it would keep a district’s representation intact until a special election can be held.
Past attempts to address the Congressional succession flaw have foundered on partisanship and attacks on proposals to seat nonelected replacements in Congress. My amendment avoids the trigger for some the past battles and provides an opportunity for bipartisan agreement.
Now is the time to move forward to fix a major flaw in our democracy. Enacting a Congressional succession constitutional amendment will allow us to do just that.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.