Strengthen succession laws of governmentTom Clancy got there first. His 1994 novel, “Debt of Honor,” features a scene where a Boeing 747 is crashed into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress. A June report by the Continuity of Government Commission in Washington opens with the same scenario. But unlike a Clancy novel, where federal agencies — especially the Pentagon — work smoothly under duress, the disaster as imagined by the commission leads to paralysis, not action.
By: Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun
Tom Clancy got there first. His 1994 novel, “Debt of Honor,” features a scene where a Boeing 747 is crashed into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress.
A June report by the Continuity of Government Commission in Washington opens with the same scenario. But unlike a Clancy novel, where federal agencies — especially the Pentagon — work smoothly under duress, the disaster as imagined by the commission leads to paralysis, not action.
That’s worth thinking about today, as the FBI continues to make arrests for an alleged bombmaking plot with links to al-Qaida.
The U.S. must be prepared for the worst. Right now, as the commission’s report makes clear, we’re not.
The Continuity of Government Commission is a joint venture by the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute, two of Washington’s best-known think tanks.
In its plane crash scenario, questions first arise over presidential succession. The agriculture secretary is alive. With the president and others in the line of succession presumed dead, the secretary weighs taking the presidential oath.
But he hesitates. What if the president is found alive? What if paramedics rescue the vice president or secretary of state? What if these officials are alive but incapacitated?
Meanwhile, who will handle America’s nuclear codes while the country and world wait?
The answers are not clear, even though presidential succession gets by far the most detailed treatment in modern law, the report suggests.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that congressional succession has even less — and less thoughtful — treatment in law.
For example, only five House members are well enough to function after the fictional attack. But under current law and precedent, “even these five remaining able members could act as the House of Representatives, as long as three of them came to the floor to form a ‘quorum,’” the scenario describes.
“If this handful of House members chose to exercise such a course of action, the House might exist in name. But would be a strange, unrepresentative, and in eyes of many, an illegitimate body.”
The scenario unfolds:
The ag secretary becomes the new president. Then the “old” president — grievously injured but not killed in the attack — is deemed well enough to resume office. He does so but collapses afterward.
Now what? For the former ag secretary no longer holds any office due to his resignation from the Cabinet. He no longer is eligible to become president.
“Chaos reigns,” as constitutional scholars go on TV to confirm that there is no one left in the line of succession.
Luckily, the Senate reconvenes, new senators having been appointed by the nation’s governors. The senators’ new “president pro tempore” serves as president.
But “the House will not have more than a few members for several months, and many are wary of the constitutional fiction that a handful of members might operate the body in the short term,” the scenario describes.
And “without a bicameral Congress, there can be no legislation passed, no declarations of war, no appropriations, no legislative response to the attacks as there was after Sept. 11.”
The point is clear: Our succession laws are functional — but that’s not enough. They should be strengthened, and the commission as well as members of Congress have suggested thoughtful ways to do so.