The thought of another attack like that of Sept. 11, 2001, is sobering and difficult, but it is something every American must brace for, especially those of us in Congress who know that the symbols of our government remain a target for terrorists. Preparations for the aftermath of such an attack have been underway for nearly three years. Despite claims to the contrary, these efforts are being conducted in a bipartisan, responsible way.
Shortly after Sept. 11, the House began studying intensely how to ensure continuity in government. The efforts included a bipartisan working group and a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on a constitutional amendment. Many meetings, discussions, and ideas ensued among members and staff. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with the entire House, urged the Senate to sit down and work with us to examine these critical continuity issues.
The issue of incapacitation is being examined by the House Rules Committee, with the help of respected constitutional scholars such as Walter Dellinger, who served as solicitor general in the Clinton administration. A solution has not been reached, but it is certainly being sought.
On April 22 the House passed by a wide bipartisan margin (306 to 97) legislation that would require expedited special elections within 45 days in the event that more than 100 members were killed. Ten states already conduct special elections within that time under normal circumstances, and election officials say they could conduct special elections within the bill's requirements. Among the amendments adopted were one that would protect the rights of military and overseas voters to participate in the expedited elections, and a requirement that the civil rights protections ensured in regularly scheduled elections would also apply. The vote was a clear demonstration that there is no true partisanship on this issue in the House, only the manufactured sort coming from those who disagree with our approach.
Election campaigns are what connect the American people to their government, and have a legitimacy no appointment process ever could. Especially in a time of great crisis, the American people are more than capable of coming together and demonstrating the integrity and viability of our form of government through elections. Critics forget that the American people have always been able to elect their leaders, even during our nation's darkest hour, the Civil War.
Many of these critics support amending the Constitution to allow for immediate appointment of House members in the event of a large number of deaths. We do not. Such proposals would deny the right to elected representation and accomplish what no terrorist could by striking a fatal blow to what has always been "The People's House." Every House that has faced this issue in the past -- including those controlled by both Democrats and Republicans at the height of the Cold War -- has rejected such constitutional amendments and chosen instead to ensure that the people always have a voice in their government by maintaining the uninterrupted House tradition of elected representation.
The constitutional amendments already introduced in the House lack support. Even if one did approach the two-thirds margin necessary for passage, the mandatory ratification by 38 states could take years. A common complaint has been that Congress has waited too long to act, that time is of the essence. Are amendment proponents so opposed to any way but their own proposal that they are willing to wait the years it would take to enact one?
The House -- unlike the presidency and the Senate, and uniquely among all branches of the entire federal government -- is institutionally designed to always reflect the popular will. Constitutional amendments that provide for an unelected government would send the terrible message that the actions of terrorists could trigger a regime of lawmaking in this country reflective more of the terrorists' vision of autocratic rule than our vision of legitimate democratic self-government. This is not a partisan view; it is a principled one.
In his speech to the Constitutional Convention, Madison stated that a "gradual abridgement" of the right to elected representation "has been the mode in which Aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms." How can the United States legitimately promote democratic rule abroad if we're backsliding from it at home? We reject allowing the seating of unelected House members, as did the Framers.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) is chairman of the House Rules Committee.