But the Continuity of Government Commission that Tom Mann and I worked to create also focused on presidential succession. Unlike Congress, this did not require a constitutional amendment, but could be done legislatively. It was clear to us that there were real problems in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. It was enacted at the urging of President Harry Truman, when, in the dangerous environment just after the war, he traveled with his Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, then next in line for the presidency, to Potsdam and realized the system’s vulnerability.
Here is what the Constitution says about presidential 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, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Congress accepted Truman’s recommendation to return the leaders in Congress to the line after the Vice President, starting with the speaker of the House and then the president pro tem of the Senate (an earlier succession plan from 1792 had included first the Senate leader followed by the speaker; when revised in 1886, congressional leaders were dropped.) They were then followed by Cabinet members in order of the creation of their offices.
The 1947 Act was flawed in many respects, starting with the dubious constitutionality of having congressional leaders in the line of succession (they are not “Officers” of the United States, as the Constitution requires) not to mention their inherent conflicts, including their role in impeachment of the president. But it was also the case that everyone in the line resided in Washington, creating a vulnerability in the modern age of small but potent nuclear and other weapons that Truman and his allies could not have foreseen. At the same time, having all Cabinet members in the line—many of whom were not chosen because of their breadth of policy expertise or qualifications to step in as commander in chief—was not wise.
So the Commission recommended streamlining the line of succession, dropping lower-level Cabinet members, and adding a new category of people deputized as Officers, chosen by the president to be confirmed in the posts by the Senate, representing geographical breadth and presumably policy and even political depth.
Unfortunately, that reasoned and reasonable suggestion went nowhere (along with all the other recommendations of our Continuity of Government Commission; once the immediate threat faded, Congress had no interest in looking ahead and building in some insurance for the future.) That is more than unfortunate; it is potentially tragic, since the threat is even greater now. Those issues can and should be revisited. But in particular it is now time to revive the dormant interest in, and importance of, presidential succession to take the new nightmare into account.