Lawmaker Ponders a Congressional Catastrophe

What would happen if a majority of the U.S. Congress fell victim to some sort of terror attack? What once was a scenario reserved for the silver screen is suddenly not such a far-fetched notion.

As a result, one legislator has a solution to such a problem, and is floating an idea that might have been unthinkable two months ago. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., has suggested a constitutional amendment that would enable state governors to suspend the democratic process and appoint members to the House of Representatives if 25 percent or more of the body were obliterated.

"Dealing with this is in no way an act of panic," Baird said. "It's an act of courage. Honestly, I don’t think we'd be excused for not stepping up to the plate. We have a duty to hold up the Constitution."

The exposure of congressional staff to anthrax demonstrated Congress' vulnerability. The House and Senate suspended proceedings for four days last week to allow for an environmental sweep. On Tuesday, six office buildings on the Capitol's campus remained closed, and members have been conducting business in makeshift meeting rooms and borrowed office space.

Congress' recent actions come without any members even being affected by anthrax. This has prompted Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute to defend his decision to publicly examine the question, "What if Congress Were Obliterated?" at a Washington discussion this week.

"We did get a couple of phone calls to say this was in bad taste, and that this just encourages the terrorists. But when you take three minutes to explain the problem, now more than ever people realize this is more than just a hypothetical question," Ornstein said.

"It's prudent that we act expeditiously," he added

Baird's proposal would amend the current system of replacing members who leave their office before their term expires. 

Currently, governors appoint replacements to open Senate seats. But when House seats are vacated, replacements are elected in general elections controlled by the individual states. Baird, and at least 40 of his bill's co-sponsors, claim that following the democratic process would create havoc in a time of national crisis.

He wants to allow governors to appoint replacements to House seats, who would sit for 90 days until an election can take place.

"The American people would need — within a week — to know that their constitutional government was working," Baird said.

"(Baird) has an excellent point," said Bill Frenzel, a former Minnesota congressman now at the Brookings Institution. Frenzel said ancillary questions — like finding a temporary home for Congress if it were unable to meet in Washington — are realistic ones.

Frenzel, however, wouldn't immediately endorse the legislative change.

"Constitutional amendments aren't made lightly," he said.

First, the bill must go to a House Judiciary subcommittee for consideration before traveling through the legislative process. Even if the amendment passes Congress, three-quarters of the states would need to ratify it.

"My hope would be that we could get this done before we meet as a full body next year," Baird said.