WASHINGTON – Determined to remain elected representatives, House lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed governors to name replacements if half the 435-member chamber died in a terrorist attack (search) or other disaster.
Opponents said the House should never abandon direct election. Lawmakers supporting the amendment said that without the succession plan, the House would expose itself to a lengthy period of powerlessness should hundreds of members die at the same time.
"We feel very, very passionately about the need to ensure that no one ever serves in the 'people's house' without having first being elected," said Republican Rep. David Dreier (search) of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee and critic of the amendment.
Rep. Brian Baird (search) wrote the amendment to keep the House functioning with appointees until special elections could be held to restore depleted numbers. 'Elections are sacred, but so too is representation," said Baird, D-Wash.
His proposal was defeated 353-63, well short of the two-thirds needed to approve a constitutional amendment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a similar amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, but the House vote effectively ends the chances that Congress will move to change the Constitution this year.
Amendments to the Constitution also must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
As an alternative to the constitutional approach, the House in May passed legislation that would require affected states to hold expedited special elections within 45 days when 100 or more members die in an attack. That bill was sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. He is the leading opponent of amending the Constitution to allow the appointment of representatives.
The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, provided for the direct election of senators and allows state governors to temporarily fill Senate vacancies until special elections can be held. House vacancies can be filled only by special elections.
South Dakotans on Tuesday held a special election to replace Republican Bill Janklow, who resigned more than four months ago, with Democrat Stephanie Herseth.
Baird argued that the House could be paralyzed for months, at a time of terrible crisis, if hundreds of lawmakers were incapacitated or killed and the House had to wait for elections to restore a working majority.
"If the terrorists strike us, they will in fact change our system of government at their discretion," Baird said. "They will change the political makeup of this body and we are unprepared to deal with that and it is irresponsible."
Baird proposed that state governors appoint replacements any time a majority of the House is unable to carry out its duties because of death or incapacity. A governor would make the appointment within seven days from a list provided by the representative before he took office. The appointee would serve until the representative could resume work or a special election were held.
Questions about keeping Congress running under such circumstances were first raised during the Cold War. The issue resurfaced after the Sept. 11 attacks, when many people believe the hijackers of the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania were trying to fly into the Capitol.
A nonpartisan commission set up after Sept. 11 to recommend how best to cope with a devastating attack on Congress also concluded that a constitutional amendment allowing for temporary appointments was the wisest course.