Congressional continuity

Oliver North
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Posted: Jun 20, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Herman Khan, the brilliant thinker who founded the Hudson Institute, used to call it "thinking the unthinkable." Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, described it as "prudent planning for the ultimate catastrophe." Bill Baker, the genius from Bell Labs, once told me it was the "most difficult engineering challenge" he ever faced. And Gen. Andy Goodpaster, the nation's first national security advisor, called it, "a strategy for democratic survival."

They were all correct, and they were all talking about the same thing -- a tightly held, top-secret program they helped design to ensure that the government of the United States could never be "decapitated."

From the summer of 1981 until the autumn of 1983, these four remarkable men, and a small handful of others, including some who remain in government service today, convened regularly in a conference room of the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. We called them the "Wise Men" -- and they were. They thought through and planned the deployment of a multibillion dollar system to minimize the chance that a Soviet missile, a terrorist, an errant weapon of mass destruction or a natural disaster could ever leave the United States bereft of civilian leadership as specified in the U.S. Constitution.

As directed by President Reagan, the first task for the "Wise Men" was to ensure that the office of the presidency -- and particularly the president's role as commander in chief -- would survive the most daunting threats imaginable. None of us involved in "The Project" ever wanted the awesome power of the U.S. armed forces to be out of the control of an elected president or a constitutionally mandated successor. Congress agreed and secretly appropriated the necessary funds. And until the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the system the "Wise Men" helped create was never used in an emergency.

Thankfully, on that terrible Tuesday, all the procedures and equipment put in place almost two decades before worked as planned. And while late-night comedians joked about Vice President Cheney being at an "undisclosed location" for seemingly endless days, everyone understood why he was not at his desk in the West Wing of the White House.

Unfortunately, there are still unresolved vulnerabilities in our Continuity of Government program. When I left work on "The Project" late in 1983, plans were still being devised for ensuring that the nation would never be without a Congress.

In 1995, the Clinton administration decided to abandon the Congressional Relocation Site -- at the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia. Then came 9-11, and just weeks later, anthrax-laden letters in Senate offices. While the nation grieved and girded for war, some in Washington wondered, how would government continue to function if large numbers of congressmen and senators were suddenly killed or incapacitated?

Last year, a bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission was formed by the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution to explore the matter. The Commission's members include former House Speakers Tom Foley, D-Wash., and Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wy., and other prominent past members of congress and former Cabinet secretaries. They wisely decided to focus on the House of Representatives.

The Constitution's framers were adamant that members of the House be directly elected by the people, and therefore the Constitution requires special elections to fill open House seats. Unlike senators, who can be appointed by governors when vacancies occur, there is no provision for the appointment of temporary House members.

The Constitution also requires a quorum of a majority of members to conduct official business -- which is interpreted as a majority of the living House members to be present. This raises several disconcerting possibilities, including a handful of surviving members conducting House proceedings on their own, or a House unable to conduct business because a majority of its members are alive but incapacitated.

The commission's first report, issued this month, recommends a constitutional amendment allowing governors to appoint temporary House members from a list of successors compiled by each duly elected congressman. As might be expected in Washington, there are those with other ideas.

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., favors a constitutional amendment permitting governors to make temporary House appointments when more than 25 percent of the House is killed or incapacitated. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., puts that threshold at 50 percent and adds the requirement that the temporary appointees must be from the same political party as the members they're replacing. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., proposes allowing surviving members of Congress to make temporary appointments. Each of these ideas require amending the Constitution -- an event many citizens regard about as favorably as contracting anthrax.

Meanwhile, options short of tinkering with the Constitution don't seem to be on the table. The focus thus far is on the morbid task of replacing those who are dead. Why not, as the "Wise Men" did two decades ago, start with the living -- and try to keep them that way while preserving the constitutional construct?

Sections 4 and 5 of Article I of the Constitution are mute as to how or where Congress is to convene. And Section 2 of the 20th Amendment simply requires, "The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year." It does not specify the manner in which that assembly must take place.

Twenty years ago we looked at the available technology and found ways to preserve constitutional government for the executive branch. Can we find a way to use fiberoptic cables, computer connectivity, biometric identifiers and myriad other technologies to convene Congress from the relative safety of 435 districts? If that's possible, it might be easier to begin there -- rather than starting with a 28th Amendment.