The Homeland Security Department has been open for business for two months, but Tom Ridge is still the only Cabinet secretary without a spot in the line of presidential succession. Now, if a handful of Members of Congress have their way, he’ll vault past the majority of his peers in the line to the Oval Office.
In drafting legislation creating the department, Congress overlooked Ridge’s place in the line of succession, despite the fact that he was slated to run a huge federal agency with 170,000 employees and a budget of more than $30 billion. Cabinet secretaries’ places in the queue to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were originally spelled out in the 1947 Presidential Succession Act.
When Congress and the White House merged 22 federal agencies together last year to form the Homeland Security department, language altering the succession act to add Ridge was not contained in the bill authorizing the department. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) introduced a proposal in January to rectify the situation, and House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) has gotten into the act as well.
Under the identical proposals offered by DeWine and Davis, the Presidential Succession Act would be altered to put the secretary of Homeland Security in the fifth spot among potential successors in the Cabinet if the president and other top leaders die or are otherwise incapacitated. Davis unveiled his bill just last week.
Homeland Security would rank after the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense and the Attorney General in the Cabinet, and would be eighth overall among all potential successors to the presidency. Interior would be next in line after Homeland Security, followed by Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and finally Veterans Affairs.
The vice president, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate are the first three potential successors.
The Davis-DeWine proposal would be a break with tradition, under which the order of succession in the Cabinet has been based on when a department first came into existence.
Davis’ bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for action. Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has not reviewed Davis’ proposal yet but is interested in resolving the situation, said Judiciary Committee sources.
Davis’ spokesman David Marin said the Virginia Republican’s bill “simply reflects the size and scope of the new department, as well as the relative importance of the department.”
DeWine’s proposal was introduced in January. “We hope and pray that we never face a situation requiring the elevation of the Homeland Security Secretary to the presidency, but I think it is essential to plan for the worst-case scenario so that we will always have strong leadership to respond to a catastrophic event,” said DeWine in a statement released by his office.
Homeland Security officials did not return several calls seeking comment on the proposal.
Norman Ornstein, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied the issue of presidential succession, said the Davis-DeWine proposal needs to be enacted.
“It was just a stupid oversight that they didn’t include it in the first place,” said Ornstein, a contributing writer to Roll Call. “What ended up happening was when they created the department, they should have included the boilerplate language that includes him in the presidential succession process. It was just inadvertent.”
Ornstein, who would like to see the succession act amended to remove Congressional leaders from the process entirely in favor of governors, suggested the individual who oversees Homeland Security will be more capable of running the government than an official in charge of a less high-profile department.
“Clearly the [qualifications for] the Secretary of the Interior is narrower than for the Secretary of Homeland Security, to say the least,” added Ornstein.
The issue of presidential succession, as part of the broader topic of continuity of government, became more urgent in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, although national leaders have wrestled with the sensitive subject back to the earliest days of the Republic.
In 1792, Congress passed the first version of a presidential succession act which had the President Pro Tem third in line, followed by the Speaker.
In 1886, Congress changed the law so that its two officers were removed from the succession and the Secretary of State became third in line, followed by the rest of the Cabinet.
But in 1947, with the Cold War raging, Congress again altered the succession law by designating the Speaker and President Pro Tem as number three and four in the line of succession.
New Cabinet departments have been added to the succession list as they are created.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) proposed changing the rules of presidential succession so the president’s party retains power if the president or vice president needs to be replaced.
Sherman’s plan, designed to ensure a continuity in federal policies, was to add the House Minority Leader to the line of succession so that either the Speaker or Minority Leader would become president, depending on which party has the White House.
Sherman has also suggested replacing the President Pro Tem as third in the line with the Majority or Minority Leader of the Senate, depending again upon the party that had control of the executive branch.
The California Democrat plans to reintroduce a slightly modified version of his proposal soon.
Congress also has wrestled with the question of how to reconstitute itself quickly in the event a terrorist attack or other disaster.
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) introduced a bill last year that would allow governors to appoint temporary House Members if more than 25 percent of lawmakers were killed or incapacitated. The bill was not enacted, and Baird has not reintroduced it during this session.