- WASHINGTON - With no fanfare,
the U.S. House has passed a controversial doomsday provision that would
allow a handful of lawmakers to run Congress if a terrorist attack or major
disaster killed or incapacitated large numbers of congressmen.
- "I think (the new rule) is terrible in a whole
host of ways - first, I think it's unconstitutional,'' said Norm Ornstein,
a counselor to the independent Continuity of Government Commission, a bipartisan
panel created to study the issue. "It's a very foolish thing to do,
I believe, and the way in which it was done was more foolish.''
- But supporters say the rule provides a stopgap measure
to allow the government to continue functioning at a time of national crisis.
- GOP House leaders pushed the provision as part of
a larger rules package that drew attention instead for its proposed ethics
changes, most of which were dropped.
- Usually, 218 lawmakers - a majority of the 435 members
of Congress - are required to conduct House business, such as passing laws
or declaring war.
- But under the new rule, a majority of living congressmen
no longer will be needed to do business under "catastrophic circumstances.''
- Instead, a majority of the congressmen able to show
up at the House would be enough to conduct business, conceivably a dozen
lawmakers or less.
- The House speaker would announce the number after
a report by the House Sergeant at Arms. Any lawmaker unable to make it
to the chamber would effectively not be counted as a congressman.
- The circumstances include "natural disaster,
attack, contagion or similar calamity rendering Representatives incapable
of attending the proceedings of the House.''
- The House could be run by a small number of lawmakers
for months, because House vacancies must be filled by special elections.
Governors can make temporary appointments to the Senate.
- Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), one of few lawmakers
active on the issue, argued the rule change contradicts the U.S. Constitution,
which states that "a majority of each (House) shall constitute a quorum
to do business.
- "Changing what constitutes a quorum in this
way would allow less than a dozen lawmakers to declare war on another nation,''