Thursday, July 17, 2008

There is no Secret Plan that Changes the Presidential Line of Succession

I'm not buying the argument that Ronald Reagan made some dastardly change to the order of Presidential succession. I'm not saying he didn't--it's possible. But amending a document for "speed and clarity" does not equate to amending the document to change the order of Presidential succession.
New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side, opens with a shocker. Apparently sometime in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan issued a "secret executive order" that in the event of the death of the president and the vice president "established a means of re-creating the executive branch." Reagan's order violated the express terms of the Constitution and governing statutes.

Does a similar order exist today? We aren't told. But we do know that Dick Cheney participated in the secret "doomsday" exercises under the Reagan order, and given his central role at present, it is imperative for Congress to find out.

Right away, I can tell you that is that were the case, Republicans who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations would have never allowed that to continue during eight years of the Clinton Presidency. They would have spoken up if that were the case. The insecurity and pride of Newt Gingrich is proof enough that whatever changes were made did not stand between him and Executive power.

I think that's barking up the wrong tree. The Dick Cheney of the 1980s was a vastly different public figure than the one so caricatured today. This is a man who, as of the mid 1990s, was still sane as far as whether we should have deposed Saddam Hussein when he indicated that overthrowing Saddam's regime wasn't worth American lives. His importance during the Reagan administration is overblown--he was a frequent critic of the Reagan administration. (They weren't conservative enough for him, and that's why he was more of a threat to school lunches than subverting the ascension of the Speaker of the House to the Presidency.)

Without knowing what Reagan did, it's not easy to judge the severity of the changes. From a strictly by-the-book interpretation of our laws, you could produce list after list of examples where the law wasn't followed to the letter by each and every administration and where nothing was done about it.

Any "doomsday" planning in that era would have centered around nuclear holocaust--not terrorism. Terrorists in the 1980s hijacked planes and gathered in small cells to kidnap people. They did not bring down nation-states and threaten to wipe out elected governments.

I wouldn't spend much time worrying about the Presidential line of succession. It's already pretty quirky as it is--and we need to clarify the standing of cabinet secretaries and make it a practice to confirm at least one or two BEFORE the inauguration of the President (and ensure they are NOT at the inaugural itself) in order to ensure proper succession.

"President Michael Armacost" is a phrase with a familiar ring to it in the nation's capital, for Armacost served ably as Brookings' fifth president from 1995-2002. But Armacost might have become president not of Brookings, but of the United States. Had that happened, he would have needed all the leadership skills he had honed at the highest levels of U.S. foreign service—and perhaps more. For an Armacost presidency would have come about because of a catastrophic terrorist attack, combined with potentially disabling quirks in the U.S. presidential succession system.

The story begins on January 20, 1989, at the inauguration of the 41st president, George H. W. Bush. At noon on that day, President Ronald Reagan's term expired, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the oath of office to Bush. What if, during that ceremony, terrorists had flown a plane into the West front of the Capitol, where the inauguration ceremony was taking place, or set off a powerful bomb? The result would have been chaos. Any attack against U.S. political leadership is a threat to national security, but the inauguration is the most vulnerable time for the government, when the mechanisms for providing an orderly transfer of power to a presidential successor threaten to break down.

President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were, of course, present at the ceremony. Next in line of succession were Speaker of the House Jim Wright and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, both of whom attended the inauguration. A devastating terrorist attack would have killed all of them along with many members of Congress and several Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice.

So who would have been president? Next in line after the speaker and the president pro tem are the cabinet officers in the chronological order of the creation of their departments. But which cabinet? Because the attack came on Inauguration Day, George Bush had not yet nominated his cabinet. A several-hour interval always ensues between a new president's taking office at noon and Senate confirmation of the cabinet.

So in the case of a calamitous attack at an inauguration, the new president would have no cabinet, and the presidency would pass to the cabinet members of the previous administration. A presidential term has a beginning and end defined by the Constitution. At noon on January 20, 1989, the terms of President Reagan and Vice President Bush ended. But the terms of cabinet members are not constitutionally limited. Cabinet members stay in office until they resign, die, are impeached and convicted, or are removed by a president. So any of Reagan's cabinet members who had not resigned at noon would have remained in the line of succession. And in 1989, several additional wrinkles would have complicated still further the transfer of power from Reagan to Bush—highlighting yet again the difficulties in our presidential succession system. Three of Reagan's cabinet members—Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos—stayed on after his term ended, as Bush had asked them to serve in his new administration. Reagan's other cabinet secretaries resigned at noon, leaving their departments in the hands of acting secretaries.

According to the Presidential Succession Act, an acting secretary of a department is in the line of succession as long as he or she has been confirmed by the Senate for some position. On January 20, 1989, at noon, Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, had resigned, as had the number-two person in the State Department, John Whitehead. The number-three person at State, the undersecretary for political affairs, who became acting secretary of state, was Michael Armacost. As the secretary of state is first among the cabinet in the line of succession, Armacost would have become president of the United States.

Good stuff. More akin to a Clancy or Le Carre novel, but good stuff nonetheless.

We're a long way from normalcy, aren't we?

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