Succession Plan Needs Short- and Long-Term Fixes

Posted June 8, 2009 at 4:25pm

Congress has created a flawed presidential succession system that the Senate, at least, could take a step right now to fix.

The Framers in 1787 created both the vice presidency and the office of President Pro Tempore — a Senator to preside over the chamber in the vice president’s absence. The first President Pro Tem actually beat the first president into office: John Langdon of New Hampshire gained the rank on April 6, 1789, while President George Washington was inaugurated 24 days later.

The Constitution was mute on how presidential vacancies might be handled if the vice president, after becoming acting president, died. Congress fixed this in 1792 and put the President Pro Tem and the Speaker of the House right behind the vice president in line to take the highest office in the land. It also created a special election provision for a new president to fill out the term. In 1886, Congress canceled both the Congressional role in presidential succession and the special election. Then 61 years later, at Harry Truman’s urging, Congress reversed course and put itself back into the succession, with the President Pro Tem now behind the Speaker but ahead of the Cabinet, to hold the office until the next regularly scheduled presidential election.

Congressional succession to the presidency is not one of Truman’s better ideas. Constitutional scholars argue that legislative branch fixtures like the Speaker and the President Pro Tem are prohibited from being in the presidential succession line. The way the law is drafted might allow a series of musical-chair presidencies, as higher-ranking Congressional figures can be named by each chamber and knock out inferior Cabinet members who have just become president. There’s the potential problem of changing presidential party control in midstream. And recently, in the fall of 2001 a series of shifting Senate majorities would have opened a can of worms about who was President Pro Tem and when.

Relying on seniority only for the job of President Pro Tem calls some unpleasant facts to the fore. Since the end of World War II, only two out of the 14 Presidents Pro Tem have been less than 70 years old when they took the job, and they have, on average, been nearly 80 when they relinquished the office. In the last two decades, the post has been held by a 99-year-old, an 83-year-old, and now a 91-year-old. So frail was the late Sen. Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.) that in the 1960s the Senate created a Deputy President Pro Tempore office to back him up.

Most importantly, there’s no longer a need for this awkward work-around. Nearly 200 years after it was ratified, the Constitution was finally amended in 1967 so as to provide a mechanism for a vice presidential appointment to fill vacancies.

Congress ought to take itself out of the succession line. But if Congress can’t give up a power it shouldn’t have, the Senate should step forward now and name the Senate Majority Leader to the office of President Pro Tempore. While doing so won’t immediately answer the abstract arguments about the flaws in succession law, it offers several early advantages.

For example, the Senate Majority Leader, just like the Speaker, is elected by colleagues to serve as his party’s leader in the chamber, and his competency and ability is judged openly by his peers every two years — and there’s no tougher voting pool in assessing someone’s qualifications for the top job. The added possibility that the Majority Leader might also serve as president would become a factor in deciding a potential’s qualifications to head the Senate, which would benefit the institution.

Second, the Majority Leader is exposed to a wide swath of contemporary public policy items and must regularly solve them by working with colleagues, the House and the executive branch. This leaves him more informed about issues — their challenges, opportunities and trade-offs — than most of his colleagues. This contemporaneous information would well serve any potential president who might step directly into the job from a Senate platform.

Third, as the leader of the Senate, he represents the American public, not just the constituents of his state — analogous to the Speaker’s breadth in her role as head of the House. He is publicly identifiable as the face of his party, advocating its point of view to the American people and, as such, accountable to them.

Finally, one of the intense areas of focus for all three branches since 2001 has been to modernize the federal government’s continuity of government plans. Keeping key services operating during and after an unimaginable event has consumed countless hours of investigation and preparation, so that the government is still able to act, respond to threats, and render aid and assistance in the event of disaster. Making the Majority Leader the President Pro Tem, until Congress bows out of the succession completely, would match the weight of the need with the seriousness of the response.

Congress is an 18th century institution that in many respects manages to perform well in the 21st century; but, when it comes to succession, the Senate should lead the way in bringing Congress up to date.

Eric Ueland is vice president of the Duberstein Group and served as chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).