Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hazards of Presidential Succession

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hazards of Presidential Succession

Article excerpt

An airplane crashes on the White House lawn; gunmen twice fire shots at the White House where the president and vice president maintain their offices. Fortunately Bill Clinton and Al Gore were not hurt; but suppose tragedy did befall our two top leaders. Who would act as president?

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate follow the vice president in the line of succession. Accordingly, if an unscheduled presidential vacancy occurs before Jan. 20, 1997, that Vice President Gore is unavailable to fill, Speaker Newt Gingrich or Senate President Pro Tem Strom Thurmond would act as president.

Regardless of one's views of Gingrich and Thurmond, the prospect that either Republican could be called upon to complete Democrat Clinton's term is disturbing. Midterm presidential succession should not occasion a change in party control of the executive branch. Our constitutional arrangements allow a presidential administration a four-year term to govern. Such stability is especially critical after a president dies, resigns or becomes disabled.

Because contemporary presidents select their vice presidents, a high degree of political and personal compatibility typically now exists between the two. Successions of vice presidents in the past half-century have brought more stability than change in the policies and personnel of the executive branch. Not only does such continuity lessen the trauma of the change, it also helps confer legitimacy on the successor as a rightful heir.

Succession of a House speaker from the president's party might replicate vice-presidential succession depending upon the skill and stature of the speaker and upon his relations with his predecessor, the Cabinet and the White House staff. Yet imagine the dislocation if the officer who succeeded belonged to the opposite party. Policies would rapidly change; hundreds of presidential appointees would be sent packing.

Even more problematic is succession by the Senate president pro tem. That position honors the senior senator from the majority party. It confers no real powers or responsibility but is a sinecure for an official like Thurmond who has held public office for 40 or 50 years. Should such an elder, typically in his ninth or tenth decade, become president following sudden vacancies in the presidency, vice presidency and speakership?

The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, provides a means to fill a vice-presidential vacancy making it less likely that someone other than a vice president would inherit the presidency. …

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