Threats against members of Congress and their staff are growing exponentially — and the federal government is woefully unprepared.
According to U.S. Capitol Police data obtained by The LA Times, threats against members of Congress have increased nearly 10 times over, from 902 investigated threats in 2016 to 8,613 in 2020. In just the first three months of 2021, more than 4,100 threats were reported to the Capitol Police.
“We have never had the level of threats against members of Congress that we’re seeing today,” warned J. Thomas Manger, the newly installed chief of the Capitol Police, in an interview with The Associated Press.
The security of our federal lawmakers and leaders has long been a concern but became all too real during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Subsequent anthrax attacks, the deaths of several serving and elected members of Congress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the events of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection have only underscored these very real threats. But nearly two decades after 9/11, little action has been taken to address the striking and dangerous vulnerabilities to the continuity of all three branches of our federal government.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute — leading think tanks on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum — came together to form the Continuity of Government Commission. Across its extensive reviews, the commission demonstrated that none of the three branches, including Congress, have adequate plans in place to ensure continuous and constitutionally valid operation in a time of national crisis.
Large-scale events could quickly alter elections or render the House unable to achieve a quorum. In a closely divided Congress — as we currently have in both chambers — a single assassin could alter the makeup and balance of power of the body. As unpleasant as it may be to imagine, these vulnerabilities are invitations to future attacks.
Upon its conclusion in May 2003, the commission issued a final report that included numerous recommendations, including calling for Congress to put in place systems to rapidly replace and temporarily fill vacant seats after a catastrophic attack. A second report on ensuring the continuity of the presidency followed in 2009.
Despite threats against members continuing to skyrocket, the commission’s recommendations have gone unaddressed.
On Jan. 6, members of Congress once again came within minutes and a few yards from being hurt or killed. But it seems we have learned little in the interim. While the role of Capitol Police, failures of intelligence gathering and sharing, as well as upgrades to Capitol security have all been examined in congressional hearings and reports, the broader question of continuity has once again been cast aside.
What more evidence do we need that these threats are real and growing? A sharp rise in domestic terrorism, mixed with a dramatic increase in polarization, means that threats against our legislative branch and elected leaders are only going to increase, a fact reiterated by a recent bomb threat at the Library of Congress. At the same time, the deaths of several serving and elected members of Congress due to COVID-19 reinforce that foreign and domestic adversaries are not the only threats.
What more evidence do we need that the stakes could not be higher? Few things could be more important than ensuring that the U.S. government can and will continue to function through natural disasters, domestic threats and international attacks. Certainly, there are many pressing matters facing Congress, and partisan divides can make it difficult to address challenging issues. But with threats against members reaching terrifying new heights, it is time for Congress, the Biden administration and the federal judiciary to put partisanship to the side and make this issue a priority.
Congress should take action and build on the work of the Continuity of Government Commission by forming a new body — either a bipartisan, bicameral joint committee or a commission of distinguished former members — that will grapple with modern threats and issue new recommendations designed to ensure continuity of all three branches.
In times of crisis, Americans look to their government and to their leaders. What will happen when their government is unable to respond? We cannot afford to find out.
Former Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) previously served as members of Congress. Both are members of Issue One's ReFormers Caucus, the largest bipartisan coalition of its kind ever assembled to advocate for solutions to fix our broken political system.