Unprepared

Posted September 11, 2007 at 5:41pm

Six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one of which may well have been targeted at the Capitol, there’s no assurance that Congress could survive a successful attack. It’s up to the current crop of Congressional leaders to correct this situation.

As Roll Call reported on Tuesday, there’s a dispute among security officials whether a lack of unified command will hamper Congress’ ability to cope with the immediate aftermath of an attack. At the same time, it’s all but certain that inadequate preparations have been made for reconstituting the House after a catastrophic blow.

Some of the first drills an incoming president undertakes are how to handle a nuclear attack on the country and an imminent attack on the White House. We don’t expect an incoming Speaker or Senate Majority Leader to have that same priority, but surely it is among their responsibilities to ensure the continuity of the legislative branch.

On the immediate-response front, former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle told Roll Call that, specifically in the House, too many officials with too little security experience may have a say in how to handle an emergency, potentially leading to confusion and endangering the safety of Members, staff and visitors.

Two efforts by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to create a unified emergency plan for both the House and Senate came to naught, so separate structures exist. In the Senate, it’s the responsibility of the Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-at-Arms. In the House, there’s a Sergeant-at-Arms, the Chief Administrative Officer, the Clerk of the House and an Office of Emergency Planning and Preparedness.

Pickle, while praising House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, indicated there may be too many “bosses” in the House. The current Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, said the ideal situation would be a unified command, adding that “too many cooks in the kitchen can make cooking very difficult.” An aide to Livingood challenged their views, contending that the House “team,” led by Livingood, can handle its responsibilities. “We do have a team here,” Livingood’s aide said. “We’re proud of the team that Mr. Livingood leads.”

We are not in a position to judge specifically whether Pickle and Gainer are correct, but divided authority over the Capitol Police has been a chronic problem in non-emergency situations, so there’s every reason for leaders of Congress to be sure that all hands understand who would be in command in event of an attack.

Meantime, Congress needs to create a satisfactory mechanism — probably by constitutional amendment — for replacing House Members killed in a mass attack. Interim Senators can be named by governors, but House Members must be “elected.” A law requiring special elections within 49 days of an attack that kills more than 100 House Members may not be workable, and a rule empowering the Speaker to lower the quorum requirement may not be constitutional.

Considering how to handle a catastrophe is easy to put off, particularly as the memory of 2001 fades. Still, it’s the responsibility of leadership and it needs to be addressed.