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This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day's events changed — and didn't change — life in Washington.
Just like the day almost 48 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I remember vividly where I was and what I did 10 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001.
I was headed to Dulles International Airport that morning to catch a flight to Norfolk, Va., for a meeting of government ethics officers. It was a perfectly beautiful day, and the drive out was almost serene. When I arrived to check in, the counters were abuzz with the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, but the early reports suggested it was a small private plane that had gone astray.
I made my way to the gate and then onto the jetway, when we were called back after the news arrived that a second plane had hit the towers, making it clear this was no accident.
I retrieved my car and made my way home, and like so many others, I spent the day glued to the television set. When I heard the news reports about United Airlines Flight 93 crashing in rural Pennsylvania, I had two spontaneous thoughts: first, that the plane had been headed for the Capitol, and second, that if it had hit during morning business on a beautiful day with hundreds of Members of Congress inside and outside the building, it could have killed and incapacitated enough lawmakers to force the House below a constitutional quorum — meaning no House, and no Congress, for a long time. That, in turn, would mean a government under attack run by some equivalent of martial law.
Soon thereafter, I wrote a column in Roll Call noting that neither the framers nor subsequent political leaders had built in to the constitutional framework any plans to reconstitute Congress in the event of a catastrophe of this sort, a problem particularly acute for the House, where vacancies can be filled only by special elections.
It takes four months, on average, to fill a House vacancy — a time that would likely be lengthened if we were talking about filling not one but hundreds of seats, under conditions of chaos and maximum stress.
I called for Congressional leaders to at least create a commission to study the problem and potential solutions.
My immediate reaction on 9/11 to the Flight 93 crash was matched by then-Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.). He contacted me when my column was published, and we began a series of brainstorming meetings. Our initial focus on the House soon expanded to the Senate, driven in part by the anthrax attacks.