December 18, 2012

Matt Yglasias reminds us this morning that the current presidential succession law is a terrible one — neither the speaker of the House nor the president pro tempore of the Senate should be part of the line of succession.

Mary McDonnell as Laura Roslin on “Battlestar Galactica.” (Carole Segal)

What he doesn’t mention is that there’s a perfectly good plan out there ready to be adopted. It was drafted by the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Continuity of Government Commission, and it’s a good one. Instead of a Glen Walken (a speaker of the House on “West Wing” who became temporary president thanks to an extremely convoluted, but not entirely implausible, series of events) or a Laura Roslin (a Secretary of Education, 43rd in the line of succession, who became president of the 12 Colonies on “Battlestar Gallactica” after a Cylon attack wiped out everyone in front of her), the commission plan would keep the presidency in good hands. It would knock not only Congressional leaders, but also the bulk of the president’s Cabinet, out of the line of succession. Instead, after the vice president and the secretaries of state, Treasury, defense, and the attorney general, the line of succession would pass to a handful of individuals designated by the president for exactly that kind of emergency, and usually based outside of Washington. For example, Barack Obama might choose Bill Clinton, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and perhaps a former governor, Congressional leader, or top-tier cabinet secretary for the role. The commission proposed that this be an actual office, confirmed by the Senate, and that those chosen receive regular security briefings so that any emergency transition would be as smooth as possible.

Unfortunately, Congress never acted on the commission’s recommendation, which were published in 2009. Nor did they act on the commission’s recommendations for dealing with a catastrophic attack on Congress, published earlier.  

It’s worth remembering that the current line of succession, with Congress stuck in there, only dates back to 1947; a very early version of it, with Congress also included, passed over the strong objections of James Madison, who knew a thing or two about how the Constitution was designed. Congress was wrong when they outvoted Madison then, and they were wrong when they revived the idea in 1947. It’s a bad idea in normal times, but it’s even worse during an era when continuity of government is a real concern. The new Congress should be looking for things it can get done next year despite divided government; maybe they can take this dusty report off the shelf and actually solve a problem which everyone who has looked at it agrees needs to be solved.

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