Congress grimly eyes `doomsday' : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Congress grimly eyes `doomsday' BY FRANK DAVIES

WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Civil War, Congress is living through a state of siege, scrambling to protect itself and even contemplating a ``doomsday scenario'':

What would happen if the legislative branch of government were destroyed or crippled?

That notion seemed outlandish until terrorists targeted the nation's capital with a fuel-laden airliner and virulent anthrax spores arrived in a Senate mailroom. Now, as senators and staffers swallow their Cipro and inspectors with gauze pads search for lethal bacteria in the empty halls of Congress, all bets are off.

Through decades of wars, invasion, shootings and bombings, the House had never been closed because of the threat of an attack -- until last week.

``Terrorists have succeeded in doing what invading forces, major international powers and even a bloody and protracted civil war have failed to do,'' said Robert Sarasin, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

One congressman has even urged his colleagues to ``think the unthinkable,'' offering a constitutional amendment to reconstitute the House if 25 percent or more of its members are killed or incapacitated.

``It's difficult to think about a catastrophic attack on the Capitol, but if more than a quarter of us are killed, we would need an absolutely clear constitutional mechanism to get the government up and running,'' said Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington Democrat.

If Congress suffered major losses, governors could quickly appoint new senators, but representatives must be elected, and state laws set the rules for special elections that often take months.

Baird's proposed amendment empowers governors to appoint House members immediately and sets special elections for those seats 90 days after that.

``In a time of national crisis, we need a bicameral legislature to handle an emergency, spend money and make appointments,'' Baird said.

His amendment got a boost from Norman Ornstein, an influential congressional scholar who wrote in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, that Congress had to face the ``nightmarish situation'' directly.

``It is simply not practical to have the possibility exist of Congress being unable to operate because of massive deaths and incapacitations, or operating for many months with a skeleton crew,'' Ornstein wrote.

Baird, a clinical psychologist who has worked with terminally ill cancer patients, said it's important to ``deal with death in a calm and measured way,'' but he understands that some of his colleagues don't want to dwell on it right now.


``The reaction has run the spectrum from those who say [my amendment] raises important issues that must be faced to those who prefer not to think about it,'' Baird said.

Several members said such an amendment would be writing the threat of mass terror into the Constitution, and end the tradition of voters always choosing House members.

``That's what's unique about the House -- by history and tradition, we are elected,'' said Mark Foley, a Palm Beach County Republican. ``I'd hate to see that end.''

Robert Wexler, a Democrat who represents Palm Beach and North Broward, had a more visceral reaction to Baird's amendment: ``God forbid! I hope it hasn't come to that yet.''

Beyond the worst-case scenario, Congress is implementing and considering a host of security improvements. Dozens of new precast concrete barriers have been added to the Capitol grounds, and large trucks are now banned from nearby streets.


New mail-screening procedures should be in place this week. Crews are putting a shatterproof substance on the Capitol's windows.

``I feel comfortable with the system we will have in place for the mail, and there's a lot of new technology [for screening] we will be looking at,'' said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Some House leaders are calling for an increase in the 1,250-member Capitol Police force, whose officers have been working 12-hour shifts six days a week since Sept. 11. National Guard troops are also under consideration.

And by coincidence, the Capitol architect's office just completed a laser-scan imaging of the Capitol building's surface, ``accurate to 3/16 of an inch,'' according to Bruce Milhans, spokesman for the office.

The imaging project, part of plans to build a $265 million underground visitors center, also means that a 3-D computerized record of the Capitol's exterior has been preserved -- just in case.

All members have been issued handheld computers to keep in touch with leaders during emergencies. And evacuation procedures have been overhauled since the chaos of Sept. 11, when many members and staffers weren't sure where to go.

``The staff has had a chance to practice evacuations, and they now have two rendezvous places to go to,'' said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.

Several members said they have been told that gas masks are kept in the Capitol near the House and Senate chambers, but haven't been supplied to offices.


``The member for Florida's 17th District breathes the same air as her staff members,'' said John Schelble, a Capitol Hill veteran and aide to Carrie Meek, a Miami Democrat.

Congress and the Capitol have faced many threats in the building's 201-year history. Fourteen years after it was occupied, the Capitol was burned by British troops in 1814 while Congress was not in session. Members met in nearby buildings for five years while the Capitol was reconstructed.

During the Civil War, the Rotunda was used as a barracks for Union soldiers. Congress continued to meet under the threat of Confederate invasion.

Business also continued uninterrupted during both world wars.

Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House chamber in 1954, wounding five members. The House met the next day.

Small bombs were set off in 1971 and 1983, and a mentally disturbed man shot and killed two Capitol Police officers in 1998. Those incidents prompted increased security.


During the Cold War, Congress even had a plan for mass evacuation in case of nuclear attack.

A vast underground series of bunkers, code-named ``Casper,'' was built for Congress at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia. It's now a tourist attraction.

But the latest threat, so different from a conventional attack, brings a potent weapon that has not been seen on Capitol Hill in years -- genuine fear.

``There is real fear and tension here -- you can feel it in the air,'' said Rep. Clay Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican. ``We have to be careful not to overreact to fear. We will be open for business Tuesday.''

-- Martin Thompson (, October 25, 2001


I am deeply troubled when I read proposals like this one.

If Congress is attacked, I wish we could all be sure it is not our own forces doing the attacking. The government of this country is at perhaps its most vulnerable stage since its inception.

The terrorist attack of 9/11-- whoever was actually responsible-- has set the stage for _anyone_ to carry out attacks of any kind on our government and have the blame fall on Bin Laden or Sadam Hussein. This includes factions in either our own CIA or military who may not like the way this country is run.

For those who think a coup could not happen in the U.S.-- it nearly did in the 1930's. That effort failed because the organizers tried to recruit a former general who took the constitution seriously and reported the matter.

-- neil (, October 26, 2001.

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