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.
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.