WASHINGTON — If most members of Congress were wiped out in a catastrophic attack, who'd replace them?
Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., have a solution: Make members of Congress pick a successor in case they are killed or incapacitated.
"Any enemy who wants to vastly change the nature of our government, or paralyze it entirely, can do so by killing or disabling a large enough group of us," Rohrabacher said Thursday at a hearing of the House of Representatives' Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee.
Their proposed Constitutional amendment, however, is likely to hit significant resistance. And the subcommittee's top Republican was less than impressed with the idea of an "alternate" member of Congress.
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"Would it be kind of like Prince Charles, who waits around for his mother to die?" Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked Rohrabacher and Baird.
They assured Sensenbrenner that the alternate member could have a real job, but wouldn't be able to serve in another elected office, such as a state Senate.
Under the proposals from Baird and Rohrabacher, each member of Congress would designate three people who could replace them if they were killed or incapacitated.
If a "significant" number of lawmakers, which wasn't specified, were wiped out, the speaker of the House, the president pro tem of the Senate or the vice president would fill vacant seats with one of the designees. The designees would only serve until the member regained capacity or if another member was elected.
In 2005, Congress directed states to hold special elections within 49 days of a House seat becoming vacant. The measure didn't say, however, what would happen during the 49-day gap. Many states have since held special elections that after periods much longer than 49 days.
Proponents of the measure said the country is poorly prepared for the aftermath of a major attack that kills many members of Congress.
"The real important decisions are made in the two to three months after an attack," said John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. "At the end of the day, we're not much more prepared than we were on 9/11."
The governor can appoint someone to fill a vacant Senate seat, but the Constitution says that members of the House must be directly elected. So the issue concerns the House more, but Baird and Rohrabacher would take that power away from the governors.
They noted problems can arise from gubernatorial appointments, such as with the scandal around former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, was concerned with the potential consequences of a Congress made up mostly of unelected members.
"They might vote me off the island," he said.
Constitutional amendments must be passed by a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate, and then approved by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. The states must ratify an amendment within seven years or it will fail.
The last amendment ratified was the 27th in 1992; it limits congressional pay raises. It only took 200 years: The amendment was first introduced in 1789.
Lawmakers have discussed what would happen to Congress after a catastrophic attack since the 1950s, when nuclear weapons were a major fear. It is widely thought that United Airlines Flight 93 was heading for the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, before its passengers thwarted the attackers and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field.
Since 2001, 14 amendments or bills with similar intentions have been introduced, said Eric Petersen, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service. Some have gotten as far as passing the House or Senate, but all eventually failed.
"You would have a hard time selling it to the American people," said Harold Relyea, a former analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "People vote once, and they think they did a good job. It would be like, 'Who is this person?'"
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