The political stars have aligned for something really good to happen. Will Republicans do it? Here are the ingredients:
Democrats now are at least narrow favorites to win a House majority in the November elections. Many Republicans are absolutely convinced that Democrats will move ahead with what they see as an unjustified impeachment should they have the majority. Republican nemesis Nancy Pelosi may well become speaker of the House — and therefore second in line for the presidency after Vice President Mike Pence.
If there’s one thing Republicans love to do, it’s change the rules of the game in their favor (Democrats do it, too, but it’s rarely a Democratic priority). And Republicans have basically no legislative agenda remaining before Election Day. Now is the time to finally fix the presidential order of succession.
The order of succession outside of the vice president is determined by legislation, not the Constitution, and it’s changed several times over the years. The current law has several problems. By inserting the speaker and the Senate president pro tempore into the line of succession, the law raises the possibility of a partisan incentive to remove the elected officials, at least during times of divided government. That’s a terrible idea. The president pro tempore of the Senate, regardless of party, has no business being involved with this at all — they get that distinction by having the most seniority, which means that half the time it’s someone long past their prime. And there has been more than one recent senator with the job who wasn’t remotely capable of handling normal Senate duties, let alone the presidency.
So cutting both of those positions out of the line of succession would be a constitutionally sound move, which would, at least in the short run, also protect Republicans from any threat of losing the presidency.
The next problem is that minor cabinet officials also have no business being involved. Of course, the whole “designated survivor” idea is never very likely to become real, but the rules should be set up so that someone more qualified than, say, Ben Carson or Ronny Jackson would wind up in the Oval Office. (Yes, I realize Jackson is gone, but he certainly could have wound up getting confirmed.)
The solution the post-9/11 Continuity of Government Commision recommended is sensible. Keep (after the vice president) the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, and the attorney general, in that order. All of these are usually experienced government leaders, and their responsibilities require wide knowledge of critical economic and national security information. After that, eliminate the remainder of the cabinet. Instead, appoint four or five well-known and well-respected leaders who live outside Washington. They would be regularly briefed on national security matters and be available in case of catastrophe. Former high-ranking government officials would be naturals for the job; they would at least have a fighting chance of seeming legitimate were they ever called upon to actually serve.
This is one of my hobbyhorses, but it’s really a shame that the commission’s work was ignored. This is a very easy fix for a real, if unlikely, problem. Solving it would give Congress something to do that would be a genuine service to the nation — and it would also serve Republicans’ short-term self-interest.
Maybe Sean Hannity could do a segment on it.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist with Bloomberg News.