Skip to content

‘No one likes to think about that stuff’: Kilmer introduces continuity plan ahead of SOTU 

Washington Democrat wants to quickly fill vacancies, reduce incentive for political violence

Rep. Derek Kilmer, seen here in 2022, is introducing a resolution that draws attention to how the House handles vacancies. In the face of political violence, the current framework is not enough, he says.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, seen here in 2022, is introducing a resolution that draws attention to how the House handles vacancies. In the face of political violence, the current framework is not enough, he says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Derek Kilmer swears he’s still a fun hang, even if he keeps bringing up mass casualty events and the hypothetical collapse of Congress.

“I would say the colleagues that I hang with are tired of me saying, ‘Hey, here’s something you may not know.’ I’m a real hoot at dinner parties,” the Washington Democrat joked this week. “I probably talk about it too much.”

But Kilmer, who announced last fall that he won’t seek reelection, feels a sense of urgency around the issue. And on Thursday he plans to introduce a resolution to draw attention to the threat of political violence and address what he sees as a flawed continuity plan.

Joining Kilmer in support of the resolution are Reps. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C., and Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo.

Congress is ill-prepared to deal with any kind of attack that affects a large swath of its membership, according to Kilmer. Even smaller incidents of political violence — or random accidents — could swing the balance of power in the House, given the razor-thin majority.

It’s something that consumes the modernization-minded Kilmer. But it’s especially relevant going into an event like the president’s State of the Union address, when leaders from all three branches of government are gathered under one roof.

“When you walk in, it just crosses your mind. Inevitably someone makes some sort of ‘Designated Survivor’ reference and you’re conscious of it,” Kilmer said, referring to the ABC drama series about a Housing and Urban Development secretary, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who ascends to the presidency after an attack during the State of the Union address. 

“I think the reality is, thanks to Kiefer Sutherland, we all have a pretty good understanding of what would happen in the executive branch. But I actually would guess that most members of Congress do not know what would happen to Congress in that situation,” Kilmer said.

According to the Constitution, vacancies in the House can be filled only by special election, a labor-intensive process that often takes several months. 

Lawmakers made some changes after 9/11, tweaking House rules to allow for a provisional quorum in a catastrophe and passing a law that requires states to speed up special elections in extraordinary circumstances. But those steps were not enough, Kilmer said.

His resolution would propose an amendment to the Constitution that would require newly elected members of the House to submit a list of at least five possible successors. In the event a member dies in office, the governor from his or her state would select one from the list to serve until a special election for a permanent replacement could be held.

On the Senate side, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution already allows vacancies to be filled on an interim basis by appointment.

Kilmer argues that his proposal for the House would remove the incentive for political violence. Members would presumably choose successors from their own political party, rendering political assassinations ineffective for anyone seeking to shift majority control.

It faces a long and unlikely road to adoption. Two-thirds of each congressional chamber would need to vote in favor of the resolution. Then three-fourths of state legislatures would need to vote to ratify the amendment.

And, as Kilmer has learned, most people don’t like talking about their own deaths.

“For the same reason that most Americans don’t have a will, right? No one likes to think about that stuff,” he said.

‘Worrisome increase’ in threats

Kilmer, who once chaired the Select Committee on Modernization and is currently ranking member of the House Administration Subcommittee on Modernization, can point to plenty of reasons to care. Threats against lawmakers and staff remain elevated, according to Capitol Police data.

For Wenstrup, who is a doctor and Iraq War veteran, the issue is personal.

Wenstrup provided emergency aid to then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., after Scalise was shot during a practice for the Congressional Baseball Game in 2017.

“With what I witnessed that day, I believe it’s necessary that we as a body act now to ensure that should tragedy strike, God forbid, the House is able to continue the people’s work and preserve the continuity of government,” Wenstrup said in a statement.

Kilmer’s colleagues on the House Administration Committee have also shown interest in the issue of continuity.

Eight members of the committee in December sent a letter asking the Government Accountability Office to study states’ ability to quickly hold special elections in the event of a mass casualty incident. In January, Kilmer and House Administration Chair Bryan Steil, R-Wis., invited secretaries of state from all 50 states to participate in that study. 

“Our Committee is devoting renewed attention to this matter in light of the worrisome increase in the number of serious, credible threats against Members of Congress,” Steil wrote to the state officials. Kilmer said a Modernization Subcommittee hearing on the question of congressional continuity is also tentatively scheduled for this spring.

A post-9/11 law mandates that special elections be held within 49 days of a mass vacancy. But according to Kilmer, the National Association of Secretaries of State informed the Select Committee on Modernization that the special election process would take on average four months. 

“In the status quo, a person with bad intentions who is willing to commit political violence to drive an outcome could flip a majority for four months. That is horrifying. That is chilling,” Kilmer said. “And if there’s a mass casualty event, if something bad happens at the State of the Union, what happens? Under current law, Congress would consist of those who skipped it.”

Recent Stories

Democratic lawmaker takes the bait on Greene ‘troll’ amendment

Kansas Rep. Jake LaTurner won’t run for third term

At the Races: Impeachment impact

Capitol Lens | Striking a pose above the throes

Democrats prepare to ride to Johnson’s rescue, gingerly

Spy reauthorization bill would give lawmakers special notifications