Saturday, March 03, 2007

Time to Amend the Presidential Succession Act


Norman Ornstein outlines the reasons why our Presidential Succession Act is unconstitutional. The succession should flow to officers of the United States, -- in this case, executive branch officials-- and not to members of Congress, who may often be members of the opposite party from the President. The current law is not only contrary to the constitutional text, it also creates bad incentives for Congressional Democrats to try to get rid of a Republican President and Vice-President (and Congressional Republicans to try to get rid of Democrats) so that they can assume the Presidency without an intervening election.

Now would be an excellent time for a show of real statesmanship by the Democrats to forswear any ambitions on the Presidency during George W. Bush's term, and to amend the act so that the succession flows from the Vice-President to members of the Cabinet appointed by the President. Now that we have divided government, if the Democrats passed such a bill, the President would have incentives to sign it and cure the constitutional defects of the current system. Keeping the succession to the Presidency within a single party would be a true act of bipartisanship.


I would prefer to have the succession remain with elected officials for as long as possible, even if the succession ended up putting a member of the other party in power. I do not like the idea of unelected executive officers ending up as CiC.

Furthermore, I have trouble seeing a Speaker of the House engineering impeachments of the President and Vice President of another party in a bid to take power. Given that getting the House to impeach a President is a herculean task which has rarely been accomplished and getting the Senate to convict has never been achieved, I do not see how the prospect of two impeachments is even a remote incentive for the Speaker of the House.

"The Constitution says Congress can create a line of succession from among "Officers" of the United States, clearly meaning executive branch officials."

Much as I hate to agree with Bart De Palma on anything, I got to say:

I don't buy this for one minute. Why would it be unreasonable to read "officers of the United States" to include officials in all three branches of the government?

Especially since that seems to be how all three branches of government have viewed the matter since 1792??

If you want to change something here, you need a Constituional amendment that calls for a new election in such cases or works on the Parliamentary model.


There is no need for a constitutional amendment. Anyone below the VP who succeeds to the Oval Office does not become "president," he only "acts as president" under the statute. And Congress can dictate the terms for any statutory succession, including establishing that the acting president serve only until a special election can be held within some short period of time.

That option actually responds to the unelected executive officers argument--the Secretary of State only would serve for a short period of time (unless of course she ran in, and won, the special election).

JaO said...

BTW, the "CinC" role is just part of the president's job.

Fair enough. Let me revise that comment to: "I do not like the idea of unelected executive officers ending up as the sole executive."

This is the most powerful office on Earth. I want an person elected by the People occupying that office if at all possible.

I'd argue Pope trumps President for most powerful office on Earth. But I'd agree that most Americans would say it was the President.

Compared to some of the things which routinely pass what passes for constitutional scrutiny in this country, the Presidential succession act is a shining beacon of constitutinality. That the Speaker is an Officer isn't much of a stretch, and all you need to do to cope with the demand that nobody serve in both branches is for them to resign when they assume the new office.

For one thing, the constitutional defect is slight. For another, if ever there were a poor moment for such pointless "statesmanship" on the part of the Democratic majority in Congress, this is it.

There is, sad to say, every reason to believe that impeachment of the Vice President and President is all that stands between us and a ruinous, insane war on Iran.

Get back to us when Democrats control both branches, and the stakes are not quite so high, eh?

"Bart" DePalma says:

I would prefer to have the succession remain with elected officials for as long as possible, even if the succession ended up putting a member of the other party in power. I do not like the idea of unelected executive officers ending up as CiC.

Uhhh ... so you're not hot on the Deciderator-In-Chief currently occupying the White House (even if we neglect the Electoral College complications...)?


"Bart" DePalma says:

Given that getting the House to impeach a President is a herculean task which has rarely been accomplished....

Newsflash: The Republican partisans set the bar pretty damn low back a decade ago....


I think Nell reflects the essence of the setting of this supposedly libertarian contribution to redrawing the constitution. I could imagine some highly trained historians chafing for a chance to utilize the current electorate's literacy level in the US as a prime motive for removing from the line of succession a moderate liberal such as Pelosi, in order to hand the interim presidency to the author who wrote more signing statements in the past eight years than penned in any prior executive branch's term, and encompassing executive rejection of more than 1,000 requirements in laws already on the books; you can imagine to whom I point, in the latter passage.

I favor the speaker of the House's currently elevated rank in the succesion precisely because of the ephemeral nature of the interim presidency as balanced against the transitoriness of holding office in the House, if one is to cast a glance beyond the obvious gerrymandered possibilities here. As it happens, Pelosi originates and has worked in some of the liberal parts of the US, and has held office based on a thoughtfulness that carries out the policies of her constituency. Perhaps the real criticism in Ornstein's thesis is to object to the US political party system as it exists in our time.
I doubt that Nell's sincerest worries are about to occur; but, given the hastiness of cobbling together its foreign policies over the past six years, easily I could perceive a continuity in m.o. if the current leadership in the executive were to attempt to prosecute yet another war; it certainly is in the cold prewar rhetoric phase at present. Barring that untoward development, I doubt impeachment of both President and Vice President would occur. However, given recent feisty public pronouncements by some appointed officials, it seems like an ineluctable eventuality that there would be multibranch conflicts over the prosecution of yet another concomitant war. With respect to Ornstein, perhaps, again, this is one of the very interstices which he most assiduously wishes to avoid, the conflux of constitutional debate at a time when multiple foreign wars are proceeding.

I suppose this assessment of current events is intended to be soothing. But, for me, asking a media saturated, sound-bitten congress to address matters that require historical perspective at this time is to invite denaturing of the strong constitution which we have got.

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