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House Likely to Approve Speedy Elections in Event of Calamity

Security: The plan urges states to revise laws to fill seats in case of a massive attack on Capitol Hill.

October 02, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Doomsday scenarios in the nation's capital usually focus on preservation of the presidential line of succession, but last year's terrorist strikes forced lawmakers to come to grips with the real possibility of an attack that could shut down or wipe out Congress.

Many lawmakers believe that they dodged two bullets in 2001. On Sept. 11, the hijacked airplane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania was apparently bound for Washington and may well have been heading for the Capitol--a highly exposed hilltop target.

In October, an anthrax-by-mail attack shut down several congressional office buildings, slowing much of the government's legislative business as afflicted areas were quarantined and lawmakers and their aides were tested for exposure to the deadly biological agent.

The events spurred Congress to tighten security on Capitol Hill and draw up contingency plans for evacuations and secret emergency meeting places.

But lawmakers remain keenly aware of their own vulnerability and that of the entire legislative branch of government. For example, a nuclear, biological or chemical attack could kill or sicken hundreds of elected officials, making a quorum in the 435-member House or 100-member Senate difficult or impossible to obtain.

The problem is especially acute in the House. Under the Constitution, no one may serve as a representative without winning a popular election. Senate vacancies, by contrast, may be filled temporarily by appointment.

Today the House is expected to take a small but significant step toward self-preservation in the event of catastrophe on Capitol Hill.

A resolution sponsored by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Martin Frost (D-Texas), expected to win overwhelming approval, urges states to revise their election laws to ensure speedy special elections to fill House vacancies.

The resolution, Cox said, "addresses a critical challenge the nation would face if large numbers of representatives were killed in a terrorist attack."

The challenge, experts say, is that the House could be shuttered indefinitely by a large-scale attack. If the House had only a few surviving members, it is not clear whether the chamber could officially convene. Special elections, the only remedy to fill vacancies, can last several months.

So for an extended time, Congress would be crippled, leaving no legislative check on the president. Among other problems, Congress could be unable to approve a successor to the vice president if that office becomes vacant. It also could be unable to approve emergency appropriations or declare war.

Such crises are without precedent in the United States. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, even darker days seem more conceivable. "It is at just those moments that you require the full strength of our checks and balances," Cox said.

Laws on special elections vary widely. A Congressional Research Service survey found that more than half of the 50 states lack specific statutes concerning the timing of special elections. In other states, laws do not call for rapid popular votes.

California, for instance, requires its governor to call for a special election within two weeks of a vacancy, but the election typically takes place several months later.

It took nearly six months after the death of Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles) in December 2000 before Diane Watson could be elected and sworn in as his successor.

Experts and lawmakers say much more work remains to shore up the continuity of government. There is talk of amending the presidential succession law to safeguard against power battles at a moment of crisis and, possibly, to provide for a longer line of succession that includes officials outside Washington. (Currently, the House speaker is third in line, followed by the Senate president pro tempore, the secretary of State and other Cabinet officers.)

There is also talk of a constitutional amendment that would enable a future House, devastated by calamity, to seat appointed members for the first time in its history. That proposal, though, is controversial.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), an early advocate of a constitutional amendment to address House vacancies, said: "We still have a responsibility as a Congress to explore ways to put the House back together as a legislative body."

Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington think tank, said expediting special elections would fail to solve the larger problem of how to keep government running when it is needed most.

Even if all states could be persuaded to hold special elections within two months of vacancies, Ornstein said, "you'd still have a 60-day gap at the worst possible time, where you wouldn't have a Congress functioning after a terrorist attack."

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