From the Washington Post, 4/23/04

Washington - The House passed a measure on April 22 to insure that Congress can continue its work if many lawmakers perish in a terrorist attack. Opponents warned that the bill won't prevent a power vacuum at a time when the country could least afford one.

The legislation, approved 306 to 97, would require states to hold special elections within 45 days after the House speaker certifies that at least 100 of the chamber's 435 members have been killed. Under House rules, the Speaker designates a list of temporary successors in the event he is unable to serve.

A Senate panel is also considering legislation to provide continuity for its operation if many of its members are incapacitated.

The House bill is the first legislative step taken by Congress to ensure its institutional survival since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks illustrated for many members their vulnerability to a devastating strike. Many lawmakers believe the Capitol was the intended target of the highjackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

“We face a grim new reality today,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash,
“… the reality that so many vacancies might suddenly occur in the House that our ability to function, and to be confident that the decisions made in this chamber reflect the broad desires of the American people, could be severely impaired.”

The fear is that the loss of many lawmakers could leave the House or Senate without a quorum and unable to conduct important business such as authorizing military force and approving spending. If only a few survived, the legitimacy of their actions could be questioned. Members of both parties agree on the problem, but ideas for solutions divide largely along partisan lines.

Most Republicans insist that any legislative fix maintain the constitutional requirement that all members of the House be elected, which they say makes the chamber uniquely reflective of the will of the people and best suited to make decisions in a crisis. In contrast, a governor can appoint a replacement if a senator dies.

Many Democrats say that approach, while laudable in theory, could leave the House paralyzed for more than a month while it awaits the election of new members. It also allows too short a time for some states to prepare for elections, they say. So some lawmakers favor changing the Constitution to allow for appointment of temporary replacements of deceased members until elects could be held.

Rep. Martin Frost, D-Tex, called the bill a “poorly thought out and wholly inadequate response.” Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash, who has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow governors to appoint temporary replacements, said the bill approved on the 22nd “could lead to chaos.”