A House subcommittee on Thursday held yet another hearing on what to do about the continuity of Congress in the event of a catastrophic attack on Capitol Hill.
In a sparsely attended hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Members acknowledged the seriousness of the issue but cautioned that present proposals were thorny at best.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, several Members, in particular Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), have introduced legislation aimed at maintaining a functioning Congress in the event of the incapacitation of many of its Members.
At the hearing, both Baird and Rohrabacher testified in support of their own amendments, each of which would provide means for immediately replacing dead or incapacitated Members.
In opening statements, both Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) acknowledged the need to look at the readiness of the legislative branch in the event of major loss of life.
However, neither Nadler nor Sensenbrenner seemed overly supportive of either proposal. Sensenbrenner in particular noted how a previous push to amend the Constitution to address the continuity issue was overwhelmingly voted down by the House and received no markup in the Senate.
Baird's amendment calls for each elected Senator or Representative to provide a list of three designees to fill his place in the event of death, incapacitation or disappearance.
In the event of a catastrophic attack incapacitating a significant number of Members of Congress, the Speaker would fill vacancies with those designees.
In his testimony, Baird called the issue one of the most important matters that may come before Congress ... perhaps during our lifetimes. He also said the current system is insufficient at maintaining a constitutional government in the face of the deaths of a large number of Members.
In 2005, a provision was passed that requires special elections to be held within 49 days if more than 100 Members are unable to serve. But this requirement has been criticized as impractical following a disaster. In fact, few states have responded to this Congressional directive and made preparations for special elections within that specified time frame.
In contrast to Bairds resolution, Rohrabachers amendment calls for the election of Representatives and Senators with alternates who would serve in the event of death, resignation or expulsion.
Rohrabacher asserted that the current system of succession could be exploited by a future attack. We are vulnerable, he said. This country as we speak is vulnerable. ... We need to ensure that this country is standing if our country is attacked.
Both Rohrabacher and Baird have worked on this issue together for some time and have co-sponsored each others resolutions.
But while many Members regard continuity legislation as extremely important, on Thursday pessimism reigned on the proposed amendments, particularly among the sponsors.
I am frustrated because in 2003 the best minds in the country on the Continuity of Government Commission told us to do just this, Baird said. The leadership of both sides needs to take this issue seriously, and the American people need to hold them to it.
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