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Homeland Security


Committee on Rules and Administration and
Committee on the Judiciary
Hearing on
Ensuring the Continuity of the United States Government: The Presidency

September 16, 2003

The hearing will come to order. Thank you all for being here this morning. This joint hearing will examine the current system of Presidential succession. I first want to thank Senator Cornyn for serving as the co-chair of this very important hearing. I know he has been interested in these issues, as I have, since his arrival in the Senate. I also want to thank our witnesses who have traveled to be here today to give us their expert opinions on this subject.

I want to begin with an interesting historical anecdote about the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the issue of Presidential succession. After a major Senate reorganization in 1946, the Senate Rules Committee was merged with the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee was officially created on January 2, 1947. The very first public hearings held by the newly created committee were on the subject of Presidential succession and how the system should be amended to deal with the advent of the atomic bomb, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt and other issues. Since those 1947 hearings, no substantive legislation has been passed to deal with the gaps in the current Presidential succession system.

As I stated earlier, this is an issue I've been interested in for quite some time. Earlier this year, the Rules and Administration Committee considered and reported out S.148, a bill by Senator DeWine, which added Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to the line of Presidential succession. As you can see from the chart [DISPLAY CHART - TABLE 1], Secretary Ridge would be 8th in line of succession after the Attorney General. This bill has already been passed unanimously by the full Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Given the circumstances of the world today, it is vitally important that we have a system of Presidential succession that operates efficiently and effectively with minimal interruption. Since September 11, 2001, Congress has been studying all aspects of our government's operations to ensure that we continue to function in the event of a catastrophe. Not since the cold war, have we had to think seriously about the scenarios that might threaten the continuity and the very fabric of our governmental structure.

The current statutes governing the presidential succession system have not been substantively amended since 1947, when Harry Truman was President. When President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 and Harry Truman ascended to the Presidency, there was no constitutional or statutory provision for replacing the Vice-President. As a result, the Vice-Presidency under Harry Truman remained vacant from 1945 until 1949. After several years of lobbying from President Truman, Congress finally amended the Presidential Succession statutes. As a result, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 was adopted and is still in force today and governs the process by which individuals succeed to the Presidency.

Amazingly, the United States has been without a sitting Vice-President on 18 separate occasions. As recently as 1963, when Lyndon Johnson ascended to the Presidency as a result of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the United States was without a Vice-President from 1963-1965. During Johnson's presidency, many people worried that if tragedy befell President Johnson and he were killed or incapacitated, we might be faced with a difficult situation of replacing the President as there was no Vice-President and the sitting House Speaker, John McCormack (born in 1891) and President Pro Tempore, Carl Hayden (born in 1877) were well-advanced in years.

In 1965, as a result of Johnson's ascension to the Presidency with no Vice-President waiting in the wings, the 89th Congress proposed the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25th Amendment is a crucial piece to the succession puzzle as we know it today and empowers the President to nominate a Vice-President whenever that office is vacant. The 25th Amendment sprung to action on two separate occasions in the early 1970's when President Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became Vice-President and ultimately the President. And then again when Nelson Rockefeller was nominated to replace Ford as the Vice-President. While the issue of Presidential succession has just recently regained the national spotlight, -- [in fact, I believe next week's Season premiere of the show "The West Wing" (although I've personally never watched the show) is focusing exclusively on the issue of Presidential Succession] -- this issue has been significantly debated and discussed over the years. In fact, during those very first hearings back in March 1947, the Chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, Senator C. Wayland Brooks of Illinois, proposed forming a special joint committee to deal specifically with the issue of Presidential Succession. Although a plethora of succession issues were discussed, the Succession Act of 1947, as passed, did not cover all of the eventualities we as a nation, face today.

We are not the only generation of elected officials and citizens who have been forced to think about the possibilities of a national catastrophe due to an era of ultra-modernized weaponry and its affect on our Presidential succession system. As one Rules committee member discussed during the 1947 hearings: "There always has been [a lot at stake] throughout our history but there is more now than ever before. This Nation is the greatest nation in the world, and yet a combination of circumstances may arise under which we would have no head, no President, and we are just trusting to luck, and it is an awful gamble with fate. Now you may say that it is taken care of by the present succession [act] that was adopted in 1886. However, at that time it might have been considered comprehensive as there was no likelihood of all the members of the Cabinet dying before the Government had been reorganized. But nowadays anything may happen, in the day of the atom bomb. If an ordinary bomb should strike the White House at a time when the cabinet was in session, they might all be wiped out. If no Cabinet meeting were being held, and all its members were in Washington, and if an atom bomb were dropped on Washington they might all be wiped out."

Likewise, the 1947 Act, which may have been considered comprehensive at the time, is clearly outdated. The "atom bomb" scenario raised more than 50 years ago, still rings true to this day - perhaps now so more than before. For example, if Washington, DC is attacked and the entire line of succession is wiped out, there is no provision to deal with such a scenario. I believe that we should study the possibility of adding some individuals to the line of succession who reside outside the DC metro area. Another issue is the incongruous bumping procedure that occurs when there are simultaneous vacancies in the top succession posts (the President, VP, Speaker and PPT)? For example, if the top four posts are vacant, the Secretary of State becomes the acting President - but only until the House selects a new Speaker or until the Senate selects a new President Pro Tempore? Once a new Speaker or Pro Tem is chosen, that individual "bumps" out the Secretary of State who has already resigned his Cabinet post to act as President and is then forced to return to the private sector (or go through the entire confirmation process again). This "bumping" procedure adds logistical complications at a time when the country needs to be emanating a message of readiness and preparedness -- NOT a message of Presidential "musical chairs." Once an individual ascends to the presidency through the succession process, that individual should remain acting as President until the expiration of the term. Or alternatively, I believe that Congress should provide for a special election (as was the case with the 1792 succession act) if the vacancy occurs early in the President's term. A special election provision was also included in the original 1947 Succession Act but was later dropped from the final bill.

And finally, an even more fundamental question we need to ask is -- should members of Congress be in the Presidential line of succession at all? There has been disagreement on this matter since the founding of our country. Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson sparred vigorously on this point, and as some of the material I've read on this topic points out, this issue was never fully resolved during the finalization of our Constitution. Members of Congress have been brought into and taken out of the line of succession several times over the last 200 years. In 1792, Members of Congress were in the line of succession; although the Pro Tem was first behind the Vice-President and the Speaker was second. [See Ted, if you'd only been around back then, you'd have been a heartbeat closer]. Then, in 1886, Congress removed themselves from the line of succession citing possible conflicts of interest that may arise in the event of an impeachment proceeding -- and in fact, such a conflict of interest occurred during the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Then again, in 1947 at the urging of Harry Truman, Members of Congress placed themselves back into the line of succession. Having Members of Congress in the line of succession presents a troubling scenario -- if the Speaker or the Pro Tem succeed to the Presidency, there is a very high likelihood that they will be of the opposite political party of the deceased President and Vice-President. [DISPLAY CHARTS - TABLES 2 & 3] As these two charts show, since the late 1960's the political party in control of the White House would have flip-flopped more than 80 percent of the time if Members of Congress would have succeeded to the Presidency. There have been very few times in recent history when one political party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. I believe this potential "party switching" scenario is problematic. If, God forbid, we are in a situation where the United States is forced to exercise the succession statutes, the country will be in need of stability and strength. I believe that the upheaval of the political control of the White House would seriously jeopardize the stability of the government. Can you imagine if Speaker Gingrich had been catapulted to the Presidency during Bill Clinton's term? Or if Speaker Tom Foley or Senator Byrd had ascended during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush? There surely would have been governmental chaos. This would be especially true if the party switch occurred early in a Presidential term. For example, the new acting President, would likely replace the entire cabinet with new appointments thereby possibly upsetting international negotiations among world leaders. I believe we ought to examine whether or not Members of Congress should be included in the line of Presidential succession.

Other problems also exist under our current Presidential succession system such as: 1) what happens if the nominees of a major party are killed in close proximity to the general election and there is not sufficient time to re-nominate? 2) what happens if the President-elect and VP-elect are killed after election day but before the Inauguration?

I don't believe that we can address every possible scenario but I do believe that there are some obvious situations that are not now covered by our current system and we should take pains to address those situations. I look forward to hearing your testimony.

Senator Cornyn, do you have an opening statement?


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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias