Skip to content

House members seek study on state readiness for quick elections

Bipartisan group wants to know if country can comply with law to fill House vacancies following a mass casualty event

President Joe Biden in February delivers his State of the Union address to Congress, one of the situations where lawmakers say a mass casualty event could threaten Congress' ability to carry out its duties.
President Joe Biden in February delivers his State of the Union address to Congress, one of the situations where lawmakers say a mass casualty event could threaten Congress' ability to carry out its duties. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of House Administration Committee members have called on the Government Accountability Office to study the ability of states to quickly fill House vacancies following a mass casualty event.

The eight lawmakers sent the GAO a letter on Dec. 8 that said the information would further inform Congress’ work to “prepare for the continuity of government and operations during an emergency.”

“In light of a worrisome increase in the number of serious, credible threats against members of Congress, we want to ensure that the States are appropriately positioned to act to ensure continuity of government and operations in the event of the unthinkable,” the letter says.

Congress changed a federal law after the 9/11 terrorist attacks so that in the extraordinary circumstances that there are more than 100 House vacancies, each state with a vacancy would have to hold a special election within 49 days.

States such as Georgia have taken steps to mirror that federal law. “Yet, 22 years after that attack, it remains unknown if other states are prepared to respond in the event that threatens the continuity of the federal government,” the lawmakers wrote.

House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., and ranking member Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., sent the letter along with Reps. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Laurel Lee, R-Fla., Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., and Norma J. Torres, D-Calif.

The continuity of government could be threatened in several instances where there are many lawmakers in one place, such as at the State of the Union address or a party retreat, the letter states.

And there are other scenarios where enough members could be killed to change the majority composition of the chamber, or an accident where all the lawmakers representing a state die and leave it without representation, the letter states.

The issue has been a priority for Kilmer, who led the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a panel that published a robust final report in December 2022 on recommendations to strengthen the chamber.

“What we heard in the Modernization committee is that states can’t meet the deadline,” Kilmer told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “We want to have the GAO actually evaluate whether the states are capable of meeting that requirement.”

Steil said this was a good opportunity to work collaboratively with Kilmer and that it addresses a timely question.

“I think it’s timely in the context of the broader global instability that we have and an opportunity to team up in a nonpartisan way to make sure that states are in compliance with federal law,” Steil said.

Though the probability of an event that kills many members is low, Kilmer says it is imperative that the government be prepared for it.

“There’s not a single member of Congress who doesn’t walk into the State of the Union and think, ‘Oh, God, what could happen,’ and the peril of that,” Kilmer said.

The lawmakers’ request underscores a grim reality of the current threat environment they serve in. In April, Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger testified that threats against members are up 400 percent over the past six years.

And the agents who track down threats against lawmakers have been inundated and are understaffed.

Shootings and accidents involving members of Congress over the past few years are stark reminders of how quickly a group of members could be seriously injured or killed.

In 2017, a gunman opened fire at a Republican practice for the Congressional Baseball Game that gravely injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. And in 2018, an Amtrak train carrying members headed to the Republican retreat in West Virginia collided with a truck. The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol had many members fearing for their lives.

The House Administration Committee in July unanimously approved a bipartisan amendment to a bill that would require the GAO to study the issue. But that broader election administration bill has not gotten a floor vote.

Last Congress, the Modernization committee held a hearing focused on continuity of Congress amid a crisis where secretaries of state said they were concerned about their ability to meet the timelines for filling House vacancies.

Recent Stories

Homeland Chairman Green reverses course, will seek reelection

Post-pandemic vaccine hesitancy fueling latest measles outbreak

Capitol Lens | Stepping out

House lawmakers grill Austin over secretive hospitalization

At the Races: A John trifecta

House passes two-tiered stopgap bill, the last one, in theory