House Continuity Bill Slated to Hit Floor Soon

Posted February 16, 2005 at 6:30pm

The House is planning to fast track legislation that would expedite special elections in the event more than 100 lawmakers were killed in a catastrophe, despite uncertain prospects for the measure in the Senate.

In the 108th Congress, the House passed the bill by a large margin, but the measure was quietly opposed in some corners of the other chamber on technical and strategic grounds. Introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the measure would require states to hold special elections within 45 days of a declaration by the Speaker that more than 100 seats were vacant.

At a press conference Wednesday, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said the bill would be brought to the floor following the Presidents Day recess. The House Administration Committee plans to mark it up today.

In an interview, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said the bill to be marked up would closely resemble the measure passed last year. He agreed to two minor changes suggested by Democrats. The first would allow, but not compel, states to hold primaries instead of having the state parties pick the candidates who would be on the ballot for a special election, as the original legislation would have mandated. The second change clarified the provision allowing states to postpone the expedited special elections if a previously scheduled election fell within 75 days of the Speaker’s announcement.

Ney said he also expects Democrats to propose extending the time for the states to hold special elections to 60 days from 45 days. He said he would likely oppose such a change, although he doesn’t think it’s an inherently bad idea to give states more time. But, he added, “The idea is to reconstitute the Congress as quickly as we can.”

Sensenbrenner, who attended the press conference with DeLay, said he had hoped the Senate would act on his legislation in the previous Congress out of deference to the House. The bill would not affect the Senate and traditionally one chamber defers to the other on matters affecting only one body.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been active on continuity issues, has said he believes the Senate should pass the House’s bill.

In the same vein of comity, Cornyn wants the House not to stand in the Senate’s way with regard to a constitutional amendment that would allow the states to decide for themselves how to fill vacancies in either chamber due to mass incapacitation. If a majority of Senators were unable to perform their duties or were too badly injured to resign their seats, the chamber would not be able to reach a quorum.

Such an amendment has met stiff resistance from House Republican leaders because it would allow — although not require — the states to appoint temporary lawmakers to the House in the event of a disaster. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), DeLay, Sensenbrenner and Ney have all opposed temporary appointments on the grounds that no one has ever served in the House without being directly elected.

A combination of opposition and indifference has kept Sensenbrenner’s measure from coming to a vote in the Senate, with some Senators opposing it because they believed it did not go far enough in tackling the complex problem of Congressional continuity. Some Senators have also grappled with the bill’s timetables, questioning whether credible elections could be held within that time frame, particularly in the wake of a national tragedy.

The legislation’s skeptics in both chambers have also pointed out that Sensenbrenner’s bill does not account for what would happen to the House in the 45 days before elections were supposed to be held or deal with the issue of mass incapacitation.

To handle that issue, the House passed an extremely controversial rule at the beginning of this session which would allow the Speaker to revise the quorum requirement downward — to perhaps as low as a handful of lawmakers — if he determined that an event had prevented a majority of lawmakers from reporting to the chamber. Many, if not most, constitutional scholars believe the rule to be unconstitutional.

Asked if the Sensenbrenner bill was going to be the last continuity-related effort by his committee this session, Ney responded, “This is going to do it. We’re going to mark it up and send it to the floor.”

Ethan Wallison contributed to this report.