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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Presidential Roulette

Event Recap

Though the Presidential Succession Act—the law, last revised by Congress in 1947, which delineates the order of accession if the President is killed or incapacitated while in office—is rarely a topic of public debate, Boston College Law Professor Richard Albert argued at the Boisi Center on November 10 that it should be. The terror attacks of 9/11, he said, demonstrated the plausibility of an event that kills both the president and vice president, yet the current line of succession carries the risk of promoting someone to the job without the crucial skills and experience needed in an emergency.

As outlined in the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, the order of succession for the presidency goes to the Vice President, then (if the she or he is unable to occupy the post) the Speaker of the House, followed by the Senate President Pro Tempore (who is always the longest-serving senator), and the cabinet officers in order of the founding dates of their departments. Placing the House Speaker second in line offers the real possibility that someone from the opposing party would assume the presidency. Consider the idea, said Albert, of President John Boehner replacing Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi replacing George W. Bush, or Tip O’Neil replacing Ronald Reagan. Furthermore, in ordering cabinet officers by their department’s founding, the current system fails to envision the skills and experience needed to run the country in a time of national crisis. Should the Secretary of Homeland Security really be lower in the order of succession than the secretaries of agriculture, transportation and education?

To address these concerns, Albert proposed first that we remove the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tempore from the order entirely. Both, he argues, may have proven themselves “master legislators” who have maneuvered through the tangled webs of the House and Senate with skill, but they do not necessarily possess the qualities of an effective national leader. Secondly, he suggested reorganizing the order of the cabinet officers on the basis of competence and reason rather than on tradition. Finally, and most controversially, he proposed that former presidents—of the party currently in power—ought to be placed above cabinet officials in the order of succession. Former presidents hold a unique balance, Albert noted, of the leadership experience, domestic stature and foreign reputation necessary to lead the country in a time of crisis.