- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

It almost happened again. On Wednesday afternoon, while much of Congress was gathering for the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, a small plane entered restricted airspace around Washington. It triggered an emergency evacuation, sending many members — including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert — fleeing for their lives.

The scare was brief: Shortly afterward, it was identified as the errant plane of Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky. But had the plane been larger, and controlled not by an embarrassed pilot but rather a suicidal terrorist, its subsequent crash into the Capitol could have killed or injured large numbers of legislators. The same thing almost happened on September 11.

But the real national crisis would not have been putting out the fires or even rebuilding the Capitol. There are procedures and blueprints for doing so. No such guidelines exist for rebuilding Congress. As a consequence, a terrorist attack could stop Congress from functioning at the exact moment that legislative speed is essential.

Congress has examined the problem of succession for some time, but still has not solved it. Sen. John Cornyn has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow states to temporarily appoint legislators by whatever method they chose (such as being named by the governor or from a list of successors previously selected by the incumbent). His bill, which may not get past the committee stage this term, also makes allowances for incapacitated legislators. There are difficulties with that approach, not the least of which is the toilsome and uncertain road of constitutional amendment. The House has taken a different path, passing a bill that calls for special elections to be held 45 days after 100 or more representatives are killed. It does not address the question of incapacitation, although its sponsors say that the problem is being examined.

There is strong historical resonance to the claim by many Republicans that the House is the “People’s House.” It has operated under direct elections ever since it was established. However, it would be unwise to use that principle and precedent as the sole guide to policy-making on the matter. Wise as they were, the Founding Fathers do not appear to have considered the sudden incapacitation of large numbers of legislators. They could not have known about modern medical technologies that can prolong the lives of severely injured persons indefinitely. But it is certain that they considered the continuance of government a matter of primacy.

The failure of Congress to make provision for its continuance in the event of a national emergency continues to put the body politic, and by extension, the American public, in jeopardy. The next air space violation might not be an accident.

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