June 18, 2003
Press and television channels have been filled for months about
America's responsibility to bring democracy to Iraq and other faraway
nations that have no prior experience with self-government. So why are
some of the same people now trying to abolish the most democratic
feature of our constitutional republic, namely, the right of the people
to elect the U.S. House of Representatives?
An elite group of former Clinton advisers and former public
officials of both political parties gathered last week at the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington to announce their proposal to
convert the House of Representatives from an elected body to an
appointed body in the event of a national emergency. I'm not making
this up; this crowd has set 9/11 of this year as its target date to
pass a constitutional amendment to accomplish this goal.
This group calls itself the Continuity of Government (COG)
Commission, and the acronym is apt. The COG Commission is trying to be
a cog that manipulates our constitutional process of self-government.
COG offers a "solution" in search of a hypothetical problem that
doesn't exist and may never exist. COG hypothesizes that it would be a
second disaster if, after a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol killed
most members of Congress, we then had to wait several months for
special elections to fill the House vacancies.
It should not be high on our worry list that the House couldn't
pass bills until special elections are held. Almost every year
Congress goes about four months without passing anything significant.
COG proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow House
members to be appointed, a procedure that is now unconstitutional.
After painting an emotional picture of a worst-case scenario with most
members of Congress killed, COG is hoping that Americans' fear of a
recurrence of the events of 9/11 will bamboozle Congress into
precipitous action, and H.Con.Res. 190 to study COG's proposals passed
the House on June 5.
COG draws a dramatic word picture of what might have happened if
United Flight 93 had departed on time and hit the U.S. Capitol instead
of being forced down in Pennsylvania. In fact, only a handful of
congressmen were in the Capitol that morning.
One of COG's proposals would simply give Congress plenary power to
fill vacant seats "if a substantial number of members are killed or
incapacitated." Another alternative would empower each governor to
replace his state's dead or disabled House members (e.g., Governor Gray
Davis could appoint 53 Representatives from California).
The text of COG's proposed constitutional amendment contains far
more words than the entire ten amendments of the Bill of Rights and is
a Rube Goldberg-like plan (i.e., complex and impractical). COG would
require each House and Senate member to designate in advance three to
seven successors to fill his seat if it becomes vacant, and the
governor would appoint Representatives from among those so designated.
Each House and Senate member would be empowered to "revise the
designations" of his successors at any time. Thus, in the 2004
elections, voters would be given the task of electing a congressional
candidate to whom is attached several shadows who would fade in and out
of the possibility of serving in Congress and whose actual appointment
would depend on the governor's choice.
Each governor's "appointment authority" would kick in after a
majority of governors issued a proclamation that an "emergency" exists
because a majority of the Representatives in that state are dead or
"unable to discharge" their duties. The process gets even stickier if
the disabled Representative rises from his sick bed and tries to resume
the office to which he was legitimately elected.
James Madison did a better job of writing the Constitution than
COG, whose members include Donna Shalala, Lynn Martin, Kweisi Mfume,
Tom Foley and Newt Gingrich. Our present Constitution already allows
governors to fill U.S Senate vacancies and allows states to advance
their timetables for special House elections.
COG's co-chairman is Lloyd Cutler, confidant of Presidents Carter
and Clinton, who was also co-chairman of the 1983 Committee on the
Constitutional System that tried (fortunately unsuccessfully) to change
the U.S. Constitution in a dozen ways in order to eliminate our
Separation of Powers. A co-sponsor of COG is the Brookings
Institution, whose president Strobe Talbott (Clinton's foreign policy
adviser) famously wrote in Time Magazine that "nationhood as we know it
will be obsolete" and that he rejoiced in the coming "birth of the
The United States survived the real national emergencies of the
Civil War and the burning the U.S. Capitol by the British in 1814
without giving up our right to elect members of the U.S. House of
Representatives. We should never relinquish that right.
Coalition to Preserve an Elected Congress, a committee of prominent conservatives formed to combat changing the U.S. House of Representatives from an elective to an appointive body in the event of a national emergency.