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When Recess Ends …

When Members of Congress departed for the August recess, they left hanging two institutional matters that need urgent attention when they return — Congressional Visitor Center funding and the problem of Congressional continuity in the event of disaster. And there’s an added matter — Federal Election Commission reform — upon which serious consideration should begin.

The House and Senate have passed legislative branch appropriations bills that conflict on whether to add $48 million for CVC construction. The Senate, responding to a General Accounting Office report estimating that amount will be necessary to complete the project, voted for the money. The House balked, and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, is looking for ways to cut costs by eliminating alleged frills.

We hope the House will end up acceding to the Senate’s view on the center. This is a structure that will serve Congress and the public for 100 years or more, and it should be done right. We’re not recommending profligate spending. Most of the “cost overruns” connected with the project result from Congress’ desire to find room to expand from cramped spaces in the Capitol and Congressional office buildings, plus security add-ons recommended in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They aren’t “frills.”

Meantime, Congress is dawdling on the issue of what happens if terrorists succeed with what they failed to do on 9/11 — kill a substantial number of Members. The chairmen of the House Judiciary and Rules committees have just joined in sponsoring what we consider a silly bill, commanding the states to hold special elections with 21 days to fill vacancies when the Speaker declares that at least 100 House Members have been killed or incapacitated.

As Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein observed last week, the difficulties California is experiencing getting ready for a gubernatorial recall election over a 75-day period make it obvious that states are not going to be able to find candidates, have them campaign, print ballots and find polling places all within a three-week period — and at a time of grave national emergency.

It’s time for the House to hold serious hearings on a constitutional amendment, as recommended by the independent, bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission, to allow for the emergency appointment of House Members just as Senate vacancies now are filled. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has introduced such an amendment, but House leaders have been reluctant to consider one.

On the third matter, the chief sponsors of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act are calling for conversion of the FEC into a regulatory body like others in Washington — the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, etc. — that is not evenly split along party lines and subject to stalemate. The improved FEC also would have the authority to perform random audits of campaigns, a deterrent to fraud. FEC reform is a contentious issue, which is why the 108th Congress should at least start deliberating on it.

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