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What Happens to Congress, the President, and the Courts During a Crisis like Coronavirus or 9/11?

Nearly 20 years ago, September 11, 2001, America was under attack. Today, many Americans, especially those who live in New York and Washington, can’t help but remember the days that followed 9/11, the rising death toll, the eerie quiet in the streets and the skies, the fog of war and uncertain future, and the anxiety of the public.

One other parallel with today’s COVID-19 pandemic is that the emergency could threaten the continuity of government and the very functioning of key constitutional and legal institutions that we need to respond to the crisis.

It is worth remembering that as terrible as 9/11 was, the attackers were thwarted in inflicting even more damage to our basic governing institutions. The hijackers of three planes hit their intended targets of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon directly killing almost 3000 people. The fourth plane, United 93, was delayed in taking off from Dulles Airport and that delay allowed passengers to learn by cell phone conversations that their flight was not just hijacked, but was on a suicide mission. Passengers rushed the cockpit to retake the plane, and in the ensuing struggle, the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board. Those passengers are heroes for their bravery and for preventing more tragedy. The intended target of the United 93 hijackers — the United States Capitol.

The attack was an assault on our basic institutions of government. Imagine the aftermath of 9/11 without a Congress or with one barely functioning. Or consider more dramatic scenarios that attack all of our constitutional and legal institutions, the presidency, the courts, elections and electoral processes. Imagine a nation paralyzed in its response to crisis because the very institutions that marshal a response are wiped out or badly limping along.

It was in the days after 9/11 that my then colleagues Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann and I began to address how to protect our constitutional institutions of government in a crisis and how to restore them in a case where an attack or crisis renders them inoperable. Ultimately, we convened a commission, The Continuity of Government Commission, chaired by former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler and Senator Alan Simpson to look at these very issues.

The COVID-19 Pandemic is in many ways different from 9/11. But the need to think about how our core institutions of government will function under great duress is just as urgent. With that urgency in mind, this blog will address the threats to the functioning of our institutions.

The first task, as it was after 9/11, is to ensure the proper functioning of Congress.

John C. Fortier is the director of Governmental Studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center and was previously the executive director of the AEI-Brookings Continuity of Government Commission.

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