First Step

Posted April 20, 2004 at 5:11pm

Given the steady drumbeat that has emanated from this page pleading with the House to take up the question of how to ensure that it could continue operating in the wake of a catastrophe, you might expect us to be turning cartwheels over Thursday’s scheduled vote on a continuity of Congress measure.

But while any floor action on the issue is a welcome departure from the House leadership’s apparent lack of interest in pushing to guarantee a functioning legislative branch, it is nevertheless a meager first step.

We’re tempted to blame the apparent unwillingness to embrace a full and open debate on an election-year mentality. After all, on its face, progress on the issue of how best to replace Members is not something that is likely to move voters back home. But more concerning is what appears to be a general reluctance to grapple with the details of the problem or possible solutions. The implications of not doing so include the very real possibly that Congress will render itself unable to perform its constitutional duty at a time of national crisis.

It’s certainly understandable that there would be some unease about establishing a system of appointments — whether made by a governor or from a list provided by Members — in a body that has always prided itself on a direct connection to constituents. But would “expedited” special elections in a post-disaster environment likely to be characterized by chaos really be a better solution? Even the most optimistic estimates would leave the House without a quorum for 45 days. The only way to educate Members about the issue — and to find out what good ideas or alternatives they might provide on a topic critical to the preservation of constitutional democracy — is to include them in the discussion. That requires more than a single committee hearing and a quick debate on the floor before gaveling out for the weekend.

In terms of security measures, Congress has taken important steps to defend itself against terrorism. But there is no easy answer to the question of what happens should the unthinkable come to pass and hundreds of Members are left unable to do their jobs.

The passengers who brought down the hijacked plane in Pennsylvania likely were all that protected the Capitol from catastrophe on Sept. 11, 2001. Congress has been warned.

It’s a positive that, two and a half years after Sept. 11, the issue will see the light of day. Here’s hoping Thursday’s vote is just the first step in a serious discussion of continuity.