Sen. Rand Paul was blunt about what would have happened Wednesday morning during an attack on a congressional softball practice without the coincidental presence of Majority Whip Steve Scalise—there wouldn’t have been any Capitol Police presence, meaning no security to return fire and stop the shooter. “It would’ve been a massacre.” Even as it was, the gunman got off dozens of shots—perhaps as many as 50 or 60, witnesses told reporters.
Scalise, the third-ranking member of the House leadership team, remains in critical condition after being shot in the hip, and the gunman was killed. But the incident brought new attention to an uncomfortable fact that has dogged Capitol Hill since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Congress, thanks to its own stubbornness, still doesn’t have a good mechanism to quickly replace members who have been injured or killed. And, if ever there were a mass slaughter of top members of Congress—a chemical or biological attack, or even a shooting incident that merely injured or incapacitated a large number of senators or representatives—business could come to a grinding halt and leave the House and Senate impotent for weeks or even months.
The stranger thing, though, is that America’s continuing inability to rebuild Congress after a catastrophic attack is, one might say, supposed to be a feature, not a bug. The men and women who have occupied the House leadership before Scalise have decided that they don’t want members to be easily replaced, even if preserving congressional traditions means that senators and representatives would be sidelined from post-disaster decision-making.
The loss or incapacity of even a small group of members would have a profound and immediate impact on democracy, thanks to procedures developed when Confederate members of Congress abandoned Washington during the Civil War. Today, the loss of life of one or two dozen members of Congress could drastically alter the majority totals necessary to pass tax cuts or the repeal of Obamacare, restrict civil liberties following an emergency or pass any other piece of legislation.