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Continuity Bill Passes House

The House last week passed a bill that would require states to hold special elections within 49 days of a declaration by the Speaker that more than 100 Members had been killed in a catastrophe.

The bill, introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), passed the chamber 329-68, picking up 24 votes over what it garnered last year. The House passed it again after the Senate refused to take it up in the 108th Congress.

Even though the legislation nominally affects only one chamber, opposition in the Senate came in part from lawmakers who believe the bill only solves a fraction of the legislative branch’s continuity problems and thus shouldn’t be taken up without a broader debate.

Sensenbrenner has steadfastly maintained that the chamber’s tradition of comity should push the Senate to pass his legislation out of respect for the House.

The measure likely picked up more votes this time around due to changes that were designed to assuage the concerns of a small but vocal minority who worried that the expedited time frame to conduct special elections would inevitably mean the disenfranchisement of many voters.

One of those provisions moved the elections to 49 days after the Speaker’s announcement, an increase of four days from 45 days.

As originally introduced in the 108th Congress, the bill would have scheduled elections for 21 days after a disaster that killed large numbers of lawmakers. However elections experts widely derided that timeframe as unworkable. Many of those same experts said 60 days would be needed to conduct an election that had the confidence of the electorate.

But Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said on the floor that “60 days is too long a time in the frame of a national crisis.”

Ironically, that was precisely the point of those who opposed the legislation, many of whom believe that the difference between 45, 49 and 60 days is arbitrary.

“History will not look kindly upon the jeopardy that we have left this great nation,” Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) said. “By leaving us without a Congress for 45 days, we essentially impose the opportunity for the executive branch to impose martial law, and that is not what the framers of this country had in mind.”

Baird has consistently pushed for Congress to look for a constitutional solution to what he believes to be a fundamentally constitutional problem. He recently cosponsored a resolution with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that the two believe would hold faithful to the principle of an all-elected House while allowing for the chamber to be immediately constituted in the event of disaster. Their amendment would have both Senators and House Members elected with three ranked alternates who could represent their districts if they were killed in a large-scale attack.

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