Tags: Thwarting | Congressional | Power | Grab

Thwarting a Congressional Power Grab

Monday, 30 June 2003 12:00 AM

There really wasn't much understanding in the country of the implications of that amendment until one day Americans woke up to the fact that they now had the first non-elected president in their history.

When the duly elected Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned, President Richard Nixon then appointed House Minority Leader Gerald Ford as vice president. This choice was quickly ratified by Congress without much thought, because at that point no one really expected Nixon to resign.

But as Watergate unfolded, Nixon saw his political support evaporate and he feared impeachment. So he did resign and there was Gerald Ford, who had only won election victories in a single congressional district in Michigan, installed as the non-elected president.

He in turn appointed a vice president who was despised in many political circles, Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, too, was quickly ratified by Congress despite his relative lack of popularity in the nation. Thus, for a little over two years America had both a president and a vice president who had never been elected by the people.

Lots of people were asking themselves, "How did this happen?" Well, when almost no one was paying attention, those who purport to study such matters proposed the amendment providing for the president to be able to name a vice president in the event of a vacancy. It seemed so innocuous that it sailed through the Congress as well as the requisite number of states.

I mention this background because I am indebted to Howard Phillips for calling to our attention the work of the Continuity of Government Commission (COG) which is funded by a number of left-wing foundations such as Carnegie, Packard, the MacArthur Foundation and officially co-hosted by AEI and the Brookings Institute.

COG, with the likes of former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel for both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, is pushing constitutional amendments that Phillips correctly believes "could radically transform the constitutional structure which has endured with changes for more than 200 years."

COG wants these constitutional amendments passed by Sept. 11, two years after the warlike attacks on the USA. They want Congress to remember that had courageous passengers not crashed the hijacked plane in Pennsylvania, it likely was headed for the Capitol and could well have killed most of the Members.

One of the COG amendments stipulates that "Congress shall have the power to regulate by law the filling of vacancies that may occur in the House of Representatives and Senate in the event that a substantial number of Members are killed or incapacitated."

Phillips said Congress would, in effect, be a permanently seated constitutional convention, able to change the law regarding the selection of its Members whenever it saw fit to do so.

Phillips quotes Tim Lizardo of Rep. Ron Paul's staff as pointing out the extremely broad nature of this amendment. It would give Congress the power to define "substantial number" of vacancies and "times of national emergency," and even might make these appointments when there is "incapacitation" when no emergency exists.

Lizardo says that COG ignores the fact that a Congress of 199 elected Members and 236 appointed Members would be less than legitimate. "What if," Lizardo asks, "the majority of elected Members voted against a measure while the vast majority of appointed officials passed the measure into law?" He said the only thing then remotely resembling the will of the people would have been overturned by appointed representatives.

Another COG proposal is to permit governors to fill all the vacancies in the House. Right now governors can appoint senators when there is a vacancy, but if there is a vacancy in the House, there has to be a special election.

Phillips wonders how Republicans would feel permitting Gov. Gray Davis to appoint all California House Members if there were vacancies in all the districts. Or likewise how Democrats would feel about having Gov. George Pataki fill all of New York's vacancies.

Simpson claims that these appointments would be temporary. But who defines temporary? And if Congress can change the law when it sees fit, perhaps they will make these appointed seats permanent once the appointed Members dominate the Congress.

The COG scheme, according to Phillips, would let candidates for Congress (and even Members after they were elected) designate an alternate should they die.

Much damage could be done by these appointed Members before elected Members again could take their seats, if they ever would again. Once Congress passes something, it is almost never repealed.

There is a lot of pressure on Congress to pass this legislation. It may be well-intentioned (although when you look at who is on this commission, I am not sure), but Congress needs to take a long, hard look at these proposals before they are put to a vote.

There is no real need for this legislation. Whatever might remain of a damaged Congress can pass temporary rules with which to operate. And special elections can be held in swift fashion. It might well be good for a shocked nation if they had to respond in such elections.

In any case, the brakes need to be applied here. Otherwise we will awake and ask, "How did this happen?" – only this time the results will be far more pernicious and the consequences more far-reaching.

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There really wasn't much understanding in the country of the implications of that amendment until one day Americans woke up to the fact that they now had the first non-elected president in their history. When the duly elected Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned,...
Monday, 30 June 2003 12:00 AM
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