Who Succeeds?

Posted April 8, 2003 at 2:03pm

The oversight that left the secretary of the new Homeland Security Department out of the line of presidential succession may be having a salutary effect — reigniting interest in the whole subject of succession and, possibly, stimulating Congressional action to improve the current (and flawed) system.

It seems reasonable for Congress to fix the oversight in short order. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) have introduced bills that would make the Homeland Security secretary eighth in line to become president in the event that a catastrophe eliminated the president, vice president, Speaker, President Pro Tem, the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, and the attorney general. So, as a temporary measure, Congress should amend the 1947 Presidential Succession Act.

And as soon as the private Continuity of Government Commission produces a report on presidential succession, the House and Senate Judiciary committees should consider scrapping the 1947 act and revising the succession system for the Age of Terror.

Independent of terror threats, the law is possibly unconstitutional in placing Members of Congress in line to succeed the chief executive. This was the attitude of Founding Father James Madison, who opposed the Second Congress’ bill to place the President Pro Tem and the Speaker in the succession line. In 1886, Congress removed its top officials from the line, but they were restored in 1947 because President Harry Truman believed that elected officials should be first in line. The current system could lead to the ascension of a new president not of the elected president’s party.

In light of present-day scenarios, the current system also has this major flaw — the whole current line is Washington-based, so that a suitcase nuclear bomb exploded here could leave the United States leaderless. Proposals have been made to place state governors or ex-presidents in line. But this raises again the possibility that the succeeding president might not be of the elected one’s party.

Another idea, proposed by American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributor Norman Ornstein, is that the president nominate — and the Senate confirm — a set of standby officers who might be governors or ex-presidents or otherwise distinguished citizens. Needless to say, all this needs to be thought through. Congress should make sure it is.