Senate panels examine scenarios for presidential succession

Constitutional scholars offered a morbid series of worst-case scenarios that could disrupt the established presidential line of succession at Tuesday's joint hearing of the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Rules Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., acknowledged that the last time Congress passed legislation regarding the line of succession was in 1947, in response to the death of President Franklin Roosevelt.

"Since those 1947 hearings, no substantive legislation has been passed to deal with the gaps in the current presidential succession system, " he said.

Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, who specializes in constitutional law, argued that the current Presidential Succession Act is "a disastrous statute, an accident waiting to happen. It should be repealed and replaced."

Amar said the current act violates the Constitution, because the Constitution's succession clause provides for Congress to name an "officer" to act as president in an instance when neither the president nor the vice-president is able to serve.

"Officers," under the Constitution, are appointed officials such as Cabinet members and not elected members of the legislative body.

Amar, along with John C. Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute; M. Miller Baker, a lawyer with McDermott, Will & Emery; and Professor Howard Wasserman of Florida International University's College of Law said Congress should change the line of successors to include at least one selected by the president and approved by Congress.

The officeholder would receive regular briefings on activities in Washington, but the sole purpose of the job would be to assume the office in case of an attack on Washington. Therefore, the officeholder would have to live outside the Washington metropolitan area.

The worst of the worst-case scenarios involves an attack on the Capitol during a State of the Union speech, in which nearly every leader would be killed or disabled. The appointed officeholder, dubbed the "Assistant Vice President," would immediately assume the office.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., expressed concern that the Senate was focusing too much energy on a multitude of "what-if" circumstances. "We shouldn't be putting too much attention to what is predominantly theoretical issues," Feingold said.

Senate Judiciary Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights Subcommittee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, also expressed concern over Wasserman's suggestion to amend the current statute to provide for a presidential special election six months after an unforeseen attack.

"Special elections are a bad idea, " said DeWine. "The last thing we need in a time of crisis is uncertainty."

Lott indicated there will be more hearings regarding the presidential line of succession. "In the meantime," he joked, "I'll be discussing the line of succession with Vice President [Dick] Cheney, Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and Ted Stevens," who as the longest-serving member of the majority party is the president pro tem of the Senate.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.