Preventing a presidential tragedy

November 22, 2013
O-forecasting illo for 1104 outlook (Outlook illustration)

Fifty years ago, on an otherwise unremarkable Dallas morning, the president of the United States was assassinated. Despite countless protections to guard against such a possibility, the unthinkable happened.  Before a nation still reeling with shock, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our 36th president, and the gears of succession turned in orderly fashion.

In other words, the constitutional system held, as it has always done. But make no mistake -- we’ve been lucky.

The presidential line of succession is anachronistic and illogical. Worst yet, it is entirely ill suited to preserving American democracy should it ever be forced to stretch beyond the vice presidency. And while that may seem an unlikely possibility, it has very nearly come to pass on several occasions. Johnson had been riding just two cars behind President Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade on the day of the assassination. President Nixon and Vice President Agnew resigned in disgrace mere months apart. And the President Lincoln assassination conspiracy of 1865 included simultaneous, albeit unsuccessful, attempts on the lives of the next two individuals in line for the presidency.

The Constitution itself only goes so far as to define the immediate presidential successor as the vice president, conferring on Congress the authority to define who comes next. Our current iteration of the chain dates back to 1947, when, in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s death in office, the presidential line of succession was last adjusted. The speaker of the House of Representatives was placed next in line after the vice president, bumping the president pro tempore of the Senate – its most senior member – down to No. 3.

In one sense, this was a good move. President pro tempore is a position often held by very elderly individuals (Senator Strom Thurmond occupied it at 99), and having any senator second in line for the presidency likewise created a constitutional conflict of interest. Should a presidential absence coincide with a Senate impeachment of the vice president, for example, the president pro tempore would effectively be voting on her own promotion.

And yet, the current spot the speaker of the House holds in the line of succession is an even greater cause for concern. The original design of the U.S. electoral system provided for a vice president who was the runner-up in the election, a holdover from a time before the two-party system had fully coalesced. This scheme was soon abandoned, however, and replaced with the current practice of electoral “running mates.” At the time, people recognized that having a president and vice president from different parties was the political equivalent of installing a fox in the henhouse.

Yet the same problem exists today with having the speaker of the House come second in the line of succession. Since 1980, the speaker has belonged to the party opposing the president about three-fourths of the time. Which brings us back to the example of Agnew and Nixon. Had Nixon resigned first, or had the resignations been spaced closer than 10 months together, House Speaker Carl Albert, a Democrat, would have become president. Even a casual observer of Washington politics can imagine the political fallout of such a transition. Under current levels of partisanship, it might tear the nation apart. It would also, in the wake of such a crisis, risk rendering the (leaderless) House virtually inoperative at a moment requiring it run smoothly.

So what might a better system look like?

Following the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981, and with Vice President George H.W. Bush temporarily out of secure communication, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously claimed that, under the circumstances, presidential authority rested with him. "Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice-president and the secretary of state, in that order," he said.

Much to his chagrin, Haig was famously wrong. His instincts, however, were dead on. It should be the secretary of state who comes next. Doing so would buttress the separation of powers by keeping the executive branch in executive hands, mitigating the risk of an undemocratic switch of the president’s party, and sidestepping the needless complications currently in place involving legislative resignation schedules and reelection requirements. This line of succession would also provide for greater continuity in the administration, easing concerns among international allies and markets as well as among the American people.

Most of the world’s constitutions follow just such a system, keeping presidential succession within the executive branch by prioritizing ministers or cabinet figures according to competence and responsibility. Such positions are almost always occupied by highly visible figures, which can benefit the country in a perilous time, providing new leadership with an obvious connection to the old.

Our American system should do the same. We should establish a list of cabinet secretariats to follow the secretary of state organized by weight of responsibility rather than by seniority of their agency’s founding (which is how we currently do it). If we ever need to go that far down the order of succession, it would likely be the consequence of national calamity, such as a nuclear or biological attack. In such cases, would we really want the secretary of agriculture, or of veteran’s affairs, sitting in the Oval Office before the director of homeland security would?

The death of President Kennedy fifty years ago broke the heart of a nation. Had it also brought on a constitutional crisis, the consequences would have been far more devastating. While the probabilities might seem low, the stakes could not be higher. We should mark this tragic anniversary by revisiting the succession scheme for our nation’s highest office and thus preempt a potentially graver tragedy in the years to come.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a constitutional research fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab. (Twitter: @Dlansberg)

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Lead like John F. Kennedy

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