Line of Succession Teaching Moment
posted by Brian Kalt
I saw this story this story about Defense Secretary Robert Gates being kept away from the Inauguration to preserve the line of succession in case of a “Mars Attacks” scenario. After seeing a couple of confused comments elsewhere on the internet, I thought I’d blog some basics about the line of succession.
The Constitution specifies only one member of the line of succession: the vice president. It empowers Congress to use ordinary legislation to provide a longer line of succession (“the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President”). Currently, the line of succession runs to the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, and then the Cabinet, in rough order of the establishment of their departments. Acting secretaries and people who aren’t eligible to be president are skipped over.
The inclusion of the Speaker and President Pro Tem is very likely unconstitutional. Because the line of succession is supposed to consist of “officers,” a designation that most people agree does not include members of Congress (who in fact are barred from being officers while in Congress), the line of succession should not include them. The statute in place between 1886 and 1947 included only the cabinet, and so avoided this issue.
Because the line of succession includes officials who are sometimes inclined to all be in the same place–at inaugurations, or at the State of the Union address, for instance–one person in the line is traditionally kept away from such gatherings. That is why Secretary Gates won’t be at the inauguration.
I saw some confused conspiracy theories online expressing suspicion about having the only Republican* in Obama’s cabinet in this role (one example: “I’m not ‘onboard’ with picking the only Republican, especially not given what this Republican junta has done.”). But Gates is a perfect choice. The conspiracy theory rests on the notion that the alternatives to Gates are Obama cabinet members like Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner. But until they are confirmed–and they won’t even be nominated until after President-Elect Obama takes over at noon–they are not in the line of succession. The Bush cabinet is. Condi Rice, Michael Mukasey, and all the rest will still hold their offices until their replacements come in (assuming that they don’t resign and let their deputies run things for a few days). As a result, Gates–who Obama is keeping on–is the perfect candidate. He might not be the conspiracy theorist’s favorite member of Obama’s cabinet, but he is the only one who has been confirmed already.
* It has been reported that Gates is not a registered Republican. And Ray LaHood, Obama’s nominee for Transportation, is a Republican.