Catastrophic Attack and Political Reform

June 22, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Had the Alexandria shooter had his way and murdered a score or more legislators on a baseball field, the country would have witnessed horrifying carnage–and, as Norm Ornstein has argued, it would have entered into genuine constitutional crisis. The slaughter of the members of one political party would have changed, in minutes, the balance of power in the federal government. A Killer’s Congress would have come into session for an extended time. Special elections don’t happen overnight, or within days or weeks.

It is hard to see how– by what exceptional displays of political leadership–the government in these conditions could re-establish its legitimacy. It would be exceptionally hard in the “best of times”. In a divisive, polarized politics, it is close to unimaginable.

As Ornstein points out, we cannot say that this miserable state of affairs could not have been anticipated. On 9/11, the Capitol only escaped a devastating attack because Flight 93’s passengers gave their lives to bring down the plane. We also cannot say that no thought was then given to reforms to protect the continuity and democratic integrity of government if its senior ranks were to be violently cut down. Ornstein joined with others to establish a Continuity of Government Commission, which then recommended measures for assuring in the event of catastrophe a functioning, constitutionally legitimate presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. That was fourteen years ago.

Nothing has happened since. The resistance, or inertia, may be traced, speculatively, to different sources. A few possibilities: A visceral resistance to House terms by appointment, an incapacity for taking on constitutional reform, unwillingness to talk about painful, deeply feared contingencies. But now, as Ornstein writes, we have “our second major wake-up call.”

With all the energy expended on other reform issues–political contribution limits, gerrymandering, the battle over voter ID, establishing mechanisms for enforcing congressional ethics, and others–it seems that a decent portion could be allocated to protecting the democracy from the shocks of a bloody, crippling attack. This is not only a matter of sound public administration, which, as a call to action, does not have as rousing an effect as “getting big money out of politics” or “not allowing politicians to pick their voters.” Maybe part of the problem is the relatively benign term for one of the crucial objectives–“continuity of government.”  “Continuity of democracy,” also an objective, might stir more interest and put more pressure on apathetic legislators.

If the inaction so far stems in part from from ineffective public communications, this problem should be solvable. But without leadership, much like that displayed by the members of the Continuity of Government Commission, there is no chance of a solution–not of this or of any other aspect of the difficulty of overcoming the inertia or unthinking resistance that is blocking reform. Somewhere within the reform community, it seems, this leadership can be found, and maybe, too, a few allies among our elected officials.


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