Policy Analysis No. 510

Restoring the U.S. House of Representatives: A Skeptical Look at Current Proposals

By Ronald Keith Gaddie
February 17, 2004

Executive Summary

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, propelled issues of security onto the national agenda. One area of debate is the continuity of government in the event of a cataclysmic attack that destroys Congress. The Senate can be quickly reconstituted via the Seventeenth Amendment, but filling House vacancies requires special elections. The average House vacancy takes four months to fill.

In this paper, a variety of proposals for the quick reconstitution of the House are examined, and an effort is made to inform this debate from the perspective of federalism. Information on the conduct of special elections, the filling of state legislative vacancies via appointment, and the electoral success of appointed state legislators and appointed senators is presented to inform the prospects for popular control of an appointed House. Proposed amendments to the Constitution are then evaluated in terms of the prospects for popular control, efficiency in implementation, triggering mechanisms, and unintended effects.

The case for a constitutional amendment concerning reconstituting the House is weak, especially given the risk of unintended consequences posed by such a major change. Legislative changes are preferable if action is necessary. In light of the costs of rapid special elections, the questionable benefits of rapidly electing House members after a disaster, and the very low probability that such a disaster will occur, the case for keeping the status quo remains strong.

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Ronald Keith Gaddie is a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and a litigation consultant in redistricting and election law cases. Rowman and Littlefield published his newest book, Born to Run: Origins of the Political Career, in December 2003.