A May 18 editorial on congressional continuity legislation incorrectly said the House had quashed a bill that would require elections within 45 days of a terrorist attack that killed at least 100 members. The House passed the bill by a vote of 306 to 97. (Published 5/20/04)

IN THEORY, the debate about how Congress should function in the aftermath of a mass terrorist attack that incapacitates hundreds of members ought to be nonpartisan. Everyone on Capitol Hill has an interest in ensuring that both the House of Representatives and the Senate are able to select new or temporary members with great speed in the wake of an event that makes it impossible for either institution to muster a quorum.

In practice, the debate has been bogged down, both by partisan politics and by members' understandable but ill-considered refusal to contemplate the consequences of their own demise. In the nearly three years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers have mostly put off thinking seriously about what would have happened if a fourth plane had hit the Capitol that day, wiping out hundreds of members of Congress and making it impossible for the nation to declare war, allocate funding or do whatever needed to be done in the face of such an emergency. Even when the House finally decided to face the issue a few months ago, members did not take it seriously. They discussed a bill that would permit immediate elections to the House to be held within an impractical 45 days, with candidates nominated within 10 days. This is too short a time to hold meaningful elections across the country, and at the same time too limited a measure, given that it does not take into account the situation of members who might be temporarily incapacitated or quarantined. House leaders allowed two hours for debate on the bill, which was then summarily quashed. Acting as if this were a partisan matter, Republicans united to defeat it.

Last week the Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights brought the measure up again. This time, the subcommittee's chairman, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), proposed a constitutional amendment that would make it possible for governors to appoint temporary members of the House, in case of a disaster, as they can now appoint temporary members of the Senate. This measure, similar to one proposed by House Democrats, represents the beginnings of a real debate, if not a final answer. If House members reject the idea of gubernatorial appointments as anti-democratic, perhaps they could appoint designated successors or even run jointly with those successors to give them added legitimacy.

Either way, the Senate and a few responsible House members are right to be thinking along these lines and right to be searching for practical and realistic solutions to what would be both a humanitarian and a constitutional catastrophe. To block debate, as the House Republican majority seems to be trying to do, is immature and irresponsible.