Do we have a disaster recovery plan?

Last week, a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen practicing for a friendly baseball competition with Democratic colleagues. Casualties were light, given the circumstances, but now some congressmen are pushing for open-carry permits so that they can defend themselves. The only reason that there weren’t many more victims in this shooting is that one of the players, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a full-time security detail as Majority Whip. And these brave officers successfully intervened, at great cost to themselves. But sad as this all was, it reminds us that far worse threats are lurking.

On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Its intended target, believed to be the US Capitol, was saved by the intervention of passengers who took matters into their own hands. There are many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, not the least of which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given the means and the opportunity. It makes me think that arming at least some qualified, sensible people might not be as bad an idea as it is generally portrayed.

A second lesson is that we came very close to mass casualties on Capitol Hill. So, what if we lost many members of Congress, killed or injured, in a terrorist attack? You might think, given the situation and past experience, that we would have a plan for continuity of government, but you would be mistaken! There are certainly plans for the Executive Branch, with a clear line of succession, a protected safe facility, and rules for assuring there is at least one eligible survivor. The Senate is assured of rapid recovery because Senators who cannot perform their duties can be replaced with interim successors by the Governors of their states. At most a few days would be required to restaff a diminished Senate. But the House of Representatives is another matter entirely.

Our founders believed strongly that our two Houses of Congress should be vastly different in their members and how they conduct business. The Senate was designed as a wise, senior check on the winds of public sentiment. In fact, originally, Senators were not even chosen by popular vote at all. Rather they were selected by state legislatures, presumably from senior political figures, not unlike the framers themselves. There remains a faint memory of this approach in how replacements are still chosen when needed.

The House, however, has no such mechanism. It doesn’t permit unelected members. Indeed, House members pride themselves on the fact that no person has ever voted in their chamber who wasn’t first elected by the residents of their congressional district. States have fairly restrictive rules about conducting elections, so many months might pass before a decimated House could be reconstituted.

What if Flight 93 had caused mass casualties on the House side? Take a worst case, where perhaps only a dozen members were among the uninjured. What if they happened to be all members of one political party? Isn’t it possible that some fairly extreme bills might be passed? Of course the Senate and President could take their normal role as balancing forces. But that assumes they are also able to function. And there’s the rub.

If many House members survived but were incapacitated, they would all still be counted for the purpose of a quorum. So it is possible that the House would be virtually unable to function. If this isn’t enough to raise your hackles, the condition of the Capitol Building after an attack could also be crucial. If it is so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used, and if the House were crippled through lack of a quorum, then even the Senate would be out of business too. That is because meeting at an alternative site requires formal concurrence of both Houses.

I suppose there are some today who might rejoice if we had no federal legislative branch at all, at least for a while. Remember Mark Twain’s cynical quote, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But be careful what you wish for. The wheels of our economy would grind to a halt quickly without prompt and effective reaction to a shock of this type.

So why does the House let this threat go unanswered? It isn’t for want of attention. Efforts to develop contingency plans have foundered because they all abridge fundamental principles of the House that distinguish it from the Senate. Thus we remain a hostage to providence. We can hope, as Bismarck is said to have remarked, that “God protects fools, children, and United States of America.” Apocryphal or not, this seems to me to be a slender reed.

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