U.S. needs new presidential succession plan

July 1, 2010
    The death of Sen. Robert Byrd at 92 highlights a strange and unsettling fact about the American political system. At the time of his death, the senator — who had to be gently removed from his perch as Appropriations Committee chairman in 2008 because of his inability to do that job — stood third in line for the presidency. A decapitating strike at the nation’s government that killed or incapacitated the president, vice president and speaker of the House would have put Byrd in the White House.
    It is clearly way past time to revisit the line of succession for the nation’s leadership.
    Having a senator who is barely able to function placed at the front of the line to take over as president in an emergency is not an idea entrenched in the Constitution. Byrd was in the position because he was elected by the Senate to serve as Senate president pro tempore.
    The president pro tempore position is the only Senate position mentioned in the Constitution and is viewed as being the highest ranking job in the Senate, though in reality it is ceremonial and given automatically to the longest serving member of the majority party. However, thanks to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the president pro tempore follows the vice president and speaker of the House in the line of succession for the presidency.
    In the line of presidential succession after President Barack Obama: Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Sen. Daniel Inouye D-Hawaii.
The line of presidential succession has been a potential source of concern for years. Most notably, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who in 1999 proved unable to serve as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee because of his frailty, held down the job of president pro tempore until the Republicans lost their majority by defection in 2001.
    This could just seem like a basic harmless joke, but in the age of high-stakes international terrorism, it is irresponsible to have senators who are clearly not even up to the job of serving as committee chairmen being placed in the position of being president. As we have seen, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that a decapitating terrorist strike could take place and wipe out numerous members of the nation’s leadership at once.
    It almost happened in the past. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his confederates nearly succeeded in wiping out a good portion of the nation’s leadership in one fell swoop, killing President Abraham Lincoln and stabbing and seriously wounding Secretary of State William Seward. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to be killed with Lincoln, but he changed his plans and did not attend the play. Vice President Andrew Johnson’s assassin lost his nerve and spent the night drinking in a hotel lobby.
    The presidential succession has been changed several times in the past.
•    In the original law, in place from 1792 to 1886, the president pro tempore was second in line, before the speaker, for the presidency.
•    In 1886, Congress decided to change the law after events over the course of two decades that included two assassinated presidents, two vice presidents who died of natural causes, and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who would have been replaced by President Pro Tempore Ben Wade, who was also sitting in judgment of Johnson. The new succession law placed the Cabinet members, starting with the secretary of state, first in line for succession.
•    The law was changed back in 1947, though with the switch of putting the speaker of the House before the Senate president pro tempore.
    These changes had their positives and negatives. Some people, including the Continuity of Government Commission, feel that the Cabinet members should be first in line, as it would ensure that the president’s party does not lose power in case of a major tragedy and it would ward off possible questions of who is in charge. Others believe that the congressional leaders should be at the top of the list, because they are elected — a view held by Harry Truman.
    There are valid arguments both ways, but the most important point should be that the person who takes control be fully functional and able to step up to the leadership in a time of great crisis. Whatever his considerable skills earlier in life, by the end Robert Byrd, like Strom Thurmond before, would not have been able to meet that challenge.
    There are some easy solutions to the problem. We can change the succession back to the old system of Cabinet members first. Alternatively, Congress can copy what a number of states do and couple the Senate president pro tempore with the Senate majority leader position, ensuring that the true head of the Senate, a presumably fully capable person that the senators selected to lead them, would be the person in line for the job.
    What’s clear is that action is needed to make sure that in a time of crisis, the president is someone who is fully alert and able to take control.
    No reason to rush, though. Sen. Byrd has been succeeded by the spry Democratic senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye. He’s only 86.
    Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform.