WASHINGTON, D.C.—In another sign of national leaders’ shifting worldview, Washington State representative Brian Baird has authored a constitutional amendment outlining a procedure for replacing large numbers of House members, should they suddenly die.
Baird introduced the measure, which aims to preserve the constitutional form of government, on October 10, a month after the World Trade Center attack and amid the Capitol’s unfolding anthrax scare. The amendment would replace a vague system set up under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would in essence create a junta—an appointed board of military commanders who would run the country in the event of a dire emergency.
The terror strikes have forced Congress to reconsider that plan. “On September 11, it seemed clear that the fourth airplane was headed toward the Capitol building,” Baird said. “It could have killed large numbers of members.”
In particular, Baird wants to close the gap between the way replacements are chosen in the Senate and House. Under the Constitution, governors can pick replacement senators, but in the House, elections are required. Baird amendment calls for temporary appointments in both chambers, followed by speedy elections. The way he sees it, replacement members would allow both chambers to continue functioning.
His approach differs sharply from the current shadow system. FEMA’s plan calls for the suspension of the Constitution and a declaration of martial law. Military commanders would then be given the reins of state and local governments. In a 1991 article, The New York Times described the regime as follows: “Acting outside the Constitution in the early 1980s, a secret federal agency established a line of succession to the presidency to assure continued government in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, current and former United States officials said today.”
At the time, the list of overseers include 17 heavyweights, among them Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Schlesinger, Edwin Meese, Tip O’Neill, and Dick Cheney.
Though the plan was conceived to deal with the chaos that would follow a nuclear attack, it included any “national security emergency,” which was defined as “any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security.” The FEMA arrangement cropped up time and again throughout the 1980s, and at one point threatened to disrupt the Iran-Contra hearings, when Oliver North was asked point-blank whether he was the individual charged with developing the contingency scheme.
The amendment from Baird, a moderate Democrat, provides that if at any time 25 percent or more of the House members become unable to carry out their duties because of death or illness, each governor of an affected state would appoint a temporary replacement within seven days. Within 90 days, a special election would thenbe held to pick a new representative.
The resolution has been referred to the full Judiciary Committee. As with any proposed amendment, Baird’s measure would need the backing of three-quarters of the nation’s state legislatures.
Baird was first elected in 1998. He is a clinical psychologist and author of the book Are We Having Fun Yet? He was chairman of his Democratic freshman class and is a party whip.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2001