House lawmakers rejected a proposed constitutional amendment yesterday that would have allowed governors to name replacements if half the 435-member chamber died in a terrorist attack or other disaster.
Opponents said the House should never abandon direct election. Lawmakers supporting the amendment said that without the succession plan, the House would expose itself to a lengthy period of powerlessness should hundreds of members die at the same time.
"We feel very, very passionately about the need to ensure that no one ever serves in the 'people's house' without having first being elected," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), a critic of the amendment.
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) wrote the amendment to keep the House functioning with appointees until special elections could be held to restore depleted numbers. "Elections are sacred, but so too is representation," Baird said.
His proposal was defeated by a vote of 353 to 63, well short of the two-thirds needed to approve a constitutional amendment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a similar amendment, but the House vote effectively ends the chances that Congress will move to change the Constitution this year.
Amendments to the Constitution also must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
In May, the House passed legislation that would require affected states to hold expedited special elections within 45 days if 100 or more members die in an attack.
The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, provides for the direct election of senators and allows governors to temporarily fill Senate vacancies until special elections can be held. House vacancies can be filled only by special elections.
Baird argued that the House could be paralyzed for months, at a time of terrible crisis, if hundreds of lawmakers were incapacitated or killed and the House had to wait for elections to restore a working majority.
"If the terrorists strike us, they will in fact change our system of government at their discretion," Baird said. "They will change the political makeup of this body, and we are unprepared to deal with that, and it is irresponsible."
Baird proposed that governors appoint replacements any time a majority of the House is unable to carry out its duties because of death or incapacity. A governor would make the appointment within seven days from a list provided by the representative before he took office. The appointee would serve until the representative could resume work or a special election were held.