July 25, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Congress Continues to Neglect Continuity

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Thanks to them, we could well face a situation where a chamber with a handful of Members would try to operate as a House making decisions about war and peace, civil liberties and other crucial areas, acting in defiance of the Constitution and with no legitimate representation for most of the country followed by an "elected" House with a majority of Members chosen with no primaries or reasonable candidate selection process and elected after campaigns slapped together during a time of maximum national crisis, with most of them then being incumbents able to serve for long periods of time. Shocking and shameful.

As for the Senate? Nothing at all.

The need for both chambers to create an insurance plan for Congress in the event of catastrophe to have temporary replacements for dead and incapacitated Members until there can be real and representative elections or the disabled can return to service remains acute and unfulfilled.

All of these failures, I should add, are thoroughly bipartisan. Republicans in the House have done more damage but Democrats in the House have done nothing.

When they recaptured the majority in 2006, the Democrats under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) took not a single step to grapple with Congressional continuity or any of these other problems. To their great discredit, they did not even erase the unconstitutional rule on quorums.

Republicans in the Senate, thanks to Cornyn, did grapple with the Congressional continuity issue, but the party leaders took no interest in it, and nothing happened.

When Democrats recaptured the Senate nothing. Not a hearing, not any action on any of the branches. There was brief interest from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a plan to deal with continuity in the Supreme Court, but it went nowhere.

Why? Human nature is probably the major culprit here. No one wants to confront issues involving their own demise, whether it is writing a will or crafting a continuity plan. The process can bring out difficult and unresolved issues that people would rather leave unresolved.

In some ways, this was history repeating itself; despite several near misses from the 1860s to the 1880s, with times when there was no one in line for the presidency, it took more than one assassination to bring about a revision in presidential succession in 1886.

Second, the very lack of another attack after 9/11 drove a greater complacency the more time passes without another catastrophe, the less the internal drive to act.

Third, there were not enough champions inside Congress. Issues that do not demand immediate resolution require passionate sponsors inside who keep pounding away at the issue, bringing it to public attention and hounding their leaders. Baird, Cornyn, Cox, Frost and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) for different periods led the charge on Congressional continuity, as did Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on presidential succession, but there was not enough firepower.

I fear that it will take another horrible attack to get Congress and other political figures to act, much as it took the assassination of President James Garfield in the 1880s. What a shame, and how unnecessary.

Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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