Skip to content

Congress needs to take disaster planning seriously, Modernization panel says

Continuity questions deserve their own committee

A smashed window is pictured after a mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — an event that renewed questions about the continuity of Congress.
A smashed window is pictured after a mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — an event that renewed questions about the continuity of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers tasked with “fixing Congress” approved their latest set of recommendations Tuesday, including one that calls for a better game plan in the case of a major disaster.

“It’s not a problem until it is, but if it is a problem it’s a big problem,” said Rep. William R. Timmons IV, vice chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. 

They explored the topic in an April hearing that looked at how the legislative branch would function, or not, if a mass casualty event led to the deaths of many lawmakers. Now they agree it deserves a much deeper dive, urging leaders to create a joint committee devoted solely to continuity.

When a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it renewed fears about how quickly Congress could recover from an attack. Some experts who testified in April advocated for drastic steps, like a constitutional amendment requiring members to prepare for the worst by confidentially designating replacements who could immediately take over.

While the Modernization panel considered listing specific steps Congress could take to keep working in the face of catastrophe, they decided to pass the baton.

“We all agreed that it should have its own committee and be discussed in depth,” Texas Republican Rep. Beth Van Duyne said. 

The recommendation is just that, a recommendation, but the panel has seen many of its previous ideas take root. This is the eighth tranche it has released since 2019.

Of the other 28 recommendations the Modernization Committee approved Tuesday, most were of the less dire variety, such as urging the House to improve document review software.

The House should finally automate tasks such as inputting bill co-sponsors, the panel recommended. Currently, staff enter that information manually. 

And lawmakers should pay more attention to district staffers, the important but sometimes neglected employees who support constituents back home. For example, every district office should have secure Wi-Fi, the panel said. Right now, that’s not the case.

The panel has just a few short months left in its quest to modernize Congress, since it is expected to expire at the end of this term. Chairman Derek Kilmer said looking outside the Washington bubble is key. 

“In many ways, our district directors and caseworkers are the public face of Congress,” he said. “We owe it to them to ensure that our district offices are fully updated and entirely capable of carrying out Congress’ work on behalf of the American people. Our recommendations help to do just that.”