Jokes aside, could Congress function if something wiped out a lot of members?

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is looking at whether the body could function if a natural or manmade disaster took out large numbers of m...

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The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been looking at the effectiveness of that branch of government from nearly every angle. Now it’s looking at whether Congress itself could function if a natural or manmade disaster took out large numbers of members. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest from the Committee Chairman, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Rep. Kilmer, good to have you back.

Derek Kilmer: Great to be with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: So the idea of continuity of Congress is not just a “suppose” because there was an imminent danger starting with 9/11, and then I guess some would argue Jan. 6, represented that type of threat. So what are the issues you’re looking at here?

Derek Kilmer: Well, they’re not dissimilar to what every organization in the country has been thinking about over the course of the pandemic. I think one of the least surprising things is that no one wants to imagine a future that doesn’t involve them. It’s like, less than half of American adults have a will. And it makes total sense, I think there’s a natural tendency to procrastinate when it comes to planning for anything that’s remotely unpleasant, much less catastrophic. And having said that, unfortunately, there is an obligation, I think, by Congress to assess risk and plan for some of these worst-case scenarios. Because if in the event, there was a crisis, you need Congress to function. You’re seeing similar continuity planning by local governments, by businesses, by schools, by other organizations. As you mentioned, there was an effort to look at issues related to the continuity of government following the attacks on 9/11. I think their recent experience with COVID had a similar effect, where institutions are trying to figure out how do they spend less time reacting and more time being able to do what they’re supposed to do in the event of a crisis. And I think the hearing that we had highlighted the fact that in a number of ways Congress isn’t ready.

Tom Temin: Because most of what the assumptions in the government writ large had to do with lack of continuity that could occur in the executive branch. So you have the presidency, eventually devolving to the Speaker of the House and so forth with the assumption that structurally, it’s a building. And as a body, Congress itself was pretty much untouchable.

Derek Kilmer: We had a hearing last week, and I thought actually, one of the most compelling bits of testimony was from a former member, Mike Bishop from Michigan. And he said, first of all, he said his interest in the subject started on a baseball field where unfortunately, horrifically, Steve Scalise was shot. And Mike said “I was struck, after that experience” that God forbid, more of his colleagues had been shot and even killed. And he started looking into what would happen. And under the current law, what would happen is there would be special elections to fill each one of those seats. And his comment was if 15 to 20 of my colleagues had been shot, it would flip the House majority. And he said, right now, if you look, the average amount of time it takes to hold a special election is 150 days. And so that’s concerning, right, because it has real ramifications. And in terms of the legitimacy of the legislative branch. Obviously, everybody has seen the various disaster movies and designated survivor and things like that. It’s a horrifying thing to think about but I confess, it crossed my mind at the State of the Union this year, that under current law, under current rules of the House, if a plane flew into the United States Capitol during the State of the Union, Congress would have consisted, after that of the seven people who had COVID, and maybe the 10 people who were boycotting the State of the Union, because they didn’t like Joe Biden. That literally would have been, what Congress would have been the next day. There are some rules in place to have special elections again, at best. And we heard testimony last week that the probably the fastest states could have those special elections would be about 60 days. If you think about it, in those instances, you’re in a state of national crisis. And the bottom line is that if Congress can’t function, our constituents lose their voice in government. And that’s a core principle of representational democracy that needs to be preserved. And so that’s why we’re taking a look at this to see what if any rules need to be changed. How might we ensure that even in the event of the unthinkable that the institution is still able to function effectively?

Tom Temin: Are there any ideas for at this point by how that might happen? In that interim between when elections could be carried out and counted and people sent to Washington?

Derek Kilmer: We certainly heard testimony from folks who had ideas. There was a commission that was established, I think, through AEI and Brookings, a bipartisan commission that looked at, that made some recommendations in the event of a catastrophe to ensure the government can continue to function. I don’t know if there’s traction in our committee for all All of their ideas. I think that there’s was certainly, and you saw through the good turnout at our hearing. I think there’s a real understanding that we’ve got a problem. Among the things that they have recommended, right now, the Constitution provides only one method for filling house vacancies. And that’s a special election. They have suggested actually pursuing a constitutional amendment that would provide for a temporary replacement upon the death of a House member until a special election could take place. That is an idea that is certainly not without controversy. But I think, particularly in the face of a potential mass casualty event, you’re faced with a bunch of bad options. And so I think our committee will be looking at that and other ideas. There’s also the issue of what constitutes a quorum. If in the horrific example that I gave you, should Congress be able to be the 17 people who weren’t able to be at the State of Union this year? I think there’s a real question as to whether that would be considered legitimate by the American people, if only 17 of the 435 districts in our country had representation. There are some other recommendations they made around the ability of Congress to function in emergencies, both in terms of the physical presence of where it functions, and even looking at things like the use of technology. So we’ve got some work to do as a committee to see if we can find the agreement on some of the recommendations that that commission has made. But I think it really highlighted that we’ve, as much – in the post-9/11 period, there was a real effort to look at these issues, there are still a lot of gaps that exist.

Tom Temin: All right, and I wanted to ask you about something else that the committee has been up to, and that is something called the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at driving better implementation of recommendations from the GAO. And they are often a little bit of Jeremiah in the wilderness there, with respect to their annual lists of duplicative programs, and so forth, High Risk List programs, and just the myriad of recommendations and findings they turn out. And sometimes while they’re certainly a patient group, but tell us more about how those recommendations from GAO could could get implemented faster.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, this is a great example of something bipartisan that’s come out of the work of this committee last year, as part of its work focused on improving government efficiency and transparency, our committee looked at opportunities to strengthen government oversight. And following those conversations, we made a bipartisan recommendation that the GAO should report to Congress on legislative actions to address open priority recommendations. The idea being you know, as you just pointed out, Gao does a bang up job of identifying areas for greater efficiency, you know, they have demonstrated a return of about $114. For every dollar invested in the GAO, their work has generated literally billions and billions of dollars in savings for American taxpayers. And having said that, sometimes they do work. That is a bit of a noble tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. And particularly with some of their priority recommendations, we often see Congress failed to act on them relevant agencies failed to act on act on them. And the rationale behind this bill is to remedy that to actually make sure that priority recommendations are being put in front of Congress making very clear these are open recommendations that need action. And kind of tabulating if you were to take action on this, this is what it would mean in terms of savings to the American taxpayer. Our view in the view of a lot of good government groups is that that would be a powerful catalyst toward action. And I’m really excited that we’ve seen such strong bipartisan support for this bill. It’s called the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act. And it really comes right out of the work of our committee.

Tom Temin: In many ways, though, it’s the work of agencies that have to take all these recommendations and carry them out. So this would somehow give Congress leverage in the oversight that Congress has, is that the general idea here?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, both. Some of GAO’s recommendations require congressional action, some, as you point out, are recommendations that are targeted to the agencies. But again, Congress has an important oversight role to play here. I’m heartened by the fact that both the chair and the ranking member of the Oversight Committee, on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are sponsors of this bill. Because when we brought it before them, they said, yeah this is a good idea. This will help in our effort to do oversight to make sure that we’re actually realizing some of the savings, addressing some of the duplication, driving some of the efficiency that GAO has identified.

Tom Temin: And one of the ways would do this would specifically just make it easier for Congress to understand and digest all of these with consolidated open priority recommendation lists and sort of putting it all in one document that would be easy to follow.

Derek Kilmer: That’s the idea here. I mean, I don’t know about you, I always find that, one, information is our friend, and two, if you don’t measure it, you don’t do it. For years, I failed to lose weight until I committed myself to stepping on the scale every day. And once I did, all of a sudden I started paying attention to my problem. So this is really trying to get those numbers in front of Congress. It’s trying to get those ideas in front of Congress, and it’s trying to spur action by Congress and by the relevant executive branch agencies.

Tom Temin: And then something a little bit more arcane that has come out from the committee recently is a caucus devoted to the effort known as the Shipyard Infrastructure Organization Program (SIOP) which recent legislation had money for, designed to, I guess, help, primarily the Navy rebuild its shore infrastructure? Tell us more about that, and that caucus?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, this is separate from the modernization committee. But we have four public shipyards in our country. They do incredibly important work in terms of driving the Navy’s mission, making sure that our sailors are safe, that we have a fleet that is ready to roll. And our interest in setting up this bipartisan public shipyard caucus was to really create a venue to discuss issues related to our public shipyards to make sure that there’s an avenue for stakeholders who support our public shipyards to engage on these issues with members of Congress to raise awareness of the importance of our public shipyards in the Congress. Importantly, you mentioned the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program. That’s an investment over the course of the next 20 years in modernizing our shipyards. It’s a game-changing investment, because it’s really focused not on the Navy of today, but on the Navy of the next century. And our public shipyards are going to be really important in that work. And the Navy has already begun laying out investments to modernize our shipyards to make sure that they’re ready to meet the needs of tomorrow’s fleet. It’s going to be a long-term program over the course of the next 20 years. And so making sure that Congress is really in tune with what the Navy is trying to accomplish there, and some of the real significant needs that exist in our public shipyards, I think is important. And it’s one of the big reasons behind the creation of this caucus.

Tom Temin: Because the Navy does have a big maintenance backlog and big update backlog of the ships themselves. And one of the issues they face, sometimes there is simply not enough physical space in a given shipyard to accommodate all of the ships that need work at a given time. So does part of this long-term thinking include perhaps establishment of another shipyard just so the throughput capacity of the nation is greater with respect to naval ships?

Derek Kilmer: We haven’t had that discussion. I think honestly, part of what’s called the SIOP, the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, is not just investment, not in modernization but it’s also optimization, trying to make sure that we’re doing things smarter, in a more efficient way at our public shipyards. Part of this is also just a recognition that we’ve got clear needs. The district I represent includes Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, which is more than 130 years old, and much of the infrastructure there is about 130 years. By the middle of next decade, we won’t have – when the Ford class carriers come online – we won’t have a West Coast shipyard capable of handling and maintaining one of those Ford class carriers. We don’t have a dry dock that’s capable of bringing it in. And so these are the types of investments that the Navy is discussing. These are the types of investment that Congress is beginning to provide funding for. But again, I think raising the awareness of the importance of this in Congress and what it means for the Navy, not just now but down the road, I think is just vitally important. And again, that’s part of the reason behind this bipartisan effort.

Tom Temin: And by the way, the issue of the size of the future Navy is not really settled yet. And the president’s 2023 budget proposal seems to shrink the Navy in the short term by ordering fewer ships than will be retired under the Navy plans. There was a 350-ship plan roughly that goes back I think even to the Obama administration, one congressman from one state with a shipyard. What’s your sense of where the Navy itself needs to go? And is there any way to get some kind of cross-Congress support for a strategy people can support for the long term because those are long term plans?

Derek Kilmer: Well, and again, part of the rationale behind the SIOP is these are big investments that are not going to be a one-year thing, right? So these are, right now the SIOP is a 20-year plan. And that can be challenging in an environment where Congress changes and you’ve gotten new people every two years. And there’s not always continuity of the players involved. And I think, again, that’s part of the rationale behind the creation of this shipyard caucus. To the point of your question around the size of the fleet, the appropriations committee and defense approach on which I serve, we’ll be digging into the president’s budget, engaging with the Navy. I had a meeting last week with the CNO. And this was a topic of conversation to figure out what do we actually need, what investments are going to be critically important to protecting our national security and what are the right investments to be making and how can we ensure that we’re being strategic both with regard to our national security needs and with regards to the needs of the American taxpayer?

Tom Temin: Because yes, we can’t necessarily or don’t necessarily need to match China ship for ship because they could be building a 500-ship, a 600-ship Navy, nobody really knows. Not that we need 600 ships, but it’s some minimum level, despite the fact that you have all of these forward capabilities like jets and long range missiles and so forth, just sheer swarming presence, I think we’re seeing in what’s going on in the world is still a pretty powerful deterrent and capability you need, should you need it.

Derek Kilmer: Certainly, I think you’ve articulated well, the value of the United States Navy and the important deterrent role that it plays with regard to those investments. I think you’ve defined a lot of where the appropriations committee is going to be digging in here in the next few weeks.

Tom Temin: I guess that was more of a statement than a question mark on the end, but I wanted to get your reaction anyway. Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer is chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, among other assignments. As always, thanks so much for joining me.

Derek Kilmer: You bet, great to see you.

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