Imagine the unthinkable happens: later this evening, just as the President approaches the podium to deliver his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, terrorists unleash the horror of a weapon of mass destruction in the heart of Washington.
As first responders comb through the devastation of bricks, mortar and bodies, they eventually identify the President and the Vice President. But neither has survived. Who will lead the nation?
The untimely death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Second World War triggered a similar scramble for certainty amid a similarly disastrous crisis of insecurity. Congress ultimately passed a law establishing a line of succession to the presidency.
When the President and Vice President are unable to serve, next in line are the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Then follow each of the Cabinet Secretaries according to departmental seniority, meaning that State, Treasury, and Defense sit atop the list, while Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Education fall in the middle with others, and Homeland Security is dead last.
This line of succession is dead wrong. Though the House Speaker and the Senate elder may be schooled in the science of legislation, both are inexpert in the art of popular leadership. Neither is possessed of the presidential timbre necessary to pilot the country in the aftermath of an attack nor imbued with the democratic legitimacy that only a national election can confer. Consigning the Homeland Security chief--the logical successor--to the bottom of the list only confirms the folly of the current presidential succession law, which imprudently privileges politics and partisanship over leadership and competence.
Consider also the "designated survivor." In anticipation of a doomsday attack, administrations past and present have adopted the practice of sequestering one or more members of the Cabinet in an undisclosed location during State of the Union addresses and other high-profile gatherings.
This past summer, for example, all of the usual dignitaries attended the President's health care address to a joint session of Congress: Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Everyone down the line of succession was present except the person chosen to serve as the designated survivor: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.
But how would Secretary Chu have fared had time and chance catapulted him into the presidency?
No one knows. And that is precisely why the current line of succession is no safer than playing presidential roulette.
Until a crisis descends upon the United States and thrusts someone unexpectedly into the presidency, no one can know whether that person will exhibit the necessary presidential ability to steer the nation though tumultuous times and ultimately back to normalcy. After all, Cabinet secretaries are chosen not for their presidential promise but rather for their professional and political profile.
Until Congress can find a better solution, let me suggest a temporary fix to palliate the lingering uncertainty in the current line of succession.
The line of succession should be amended to place former living presidents, in reverse chronological order of service, ahead of the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem. Although this would require a constitutional amendment to permit two-term presidents to fill a vacancy in the event of a tragedy, it would correct the imbalance that currently governs succession to the presidency--a costly imbalance in which politics and partisanship outweigh leadership and competence, to the detriment of the nation and its stability in times of emergency.
Former presidents are the only ones equipped with the proven competence, domestic repute and foreign stature needed to pull the United States out of the depths of disaster. And perhaps most importantly, they are known quantities seen as motivated by the public interest and not driven by political calculus. Unlike the House Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem, and Cabinet secretaries, former presidents have deliberated on weighty matters of state in the Oval Office, presided over national security meetings in the ultra-secure situation room, and observed our dangerous world from the unique perspective of the presidency.
With a former president at the helm in a crisis, no longer would presidential succession be like a game of presidential roulette. Instead, in the aftermath of a doomsday scenario, the United States would be in competent hands, and well on the way toward rebuilding both the state and its spirit.
Richard Albert, a graduate of Yale, Oxford, and Harvard, is an Assistant Professor at Boston College Law School, where he specializes in constitutional law and democratic theory. He writes about constitutional politics, the separation of powers, the role of courts in liberal democracy, and religion in public life.