It’s Speaker of the House John Boehner, but most Americans wouldn’t know that. Since 1947, the speaker of the House has been second in line to become president, after the vice president and before the president pro tempore of the Senate (Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, for those keeping score at home).
The chaotic process of selecting a new speaker has been analyzed from virtually every possible angle. Will Rep. Paul Ryan run? How should the next speaker deal with the Tea Party? What about Mitt Romney for speaker? Anyone?
But the one thing missing from the palace intrigue and parlor games for the chattering class is the sober reality that if the unimaginable happens, one of the people being vetted by the House Freedom Caucus would be the leader of the free world.
This should be a wake-up call, and not just because the House Republicans are running around like the chickens that cut off their own heads for refusing to shut down the government. Our presidential line of succession is a mess, and it needs to be fixed.
Presidential succession may seem like a theoretical issue, but when it matters, rest assured it will be very real. Nearly one out of every five presidents has died in office, and more than one out of every 10 vice presidents has done the same. Sooner or later, whether out of malice or just pure chance, the person second in line is going to matter an awful lot. We should make sure that person is not the Speaker of the House.
For one thing, the president and the speaker are more often than not from different parties. When the Presidential Succession Act was last modified in 1947, President Harry Truman argued that the speaker was likely to be of the same party as the president. But history has proven otherwise. Since Truman’s time, the two positions have been held by the same party less than 40 percent of the time. We would like to think bipartisanship would carry the day in any circumstance where the top two offices of government were vacant, but it is nonetheless true that the White House would switch parties without the consent of the American people. That shouldn’t happen, and it doesn’t have to if we reform the line of succession.
Additionally, a guarantee that any successor would be an ally of the deceased president significantly decreases the likelihood that assassination will be used as a political tool in the United States. We tend to think of assassinations as random acts, outside the realm of politics, but for most of human history, killing a political rival was one of the most successful ways to take power. Our governmental structure should be such that politics-by-assassination is as discouraged as possible.
Partisan consistency is not the only reason to remove the legislative leaders from the line of succession. The last speaker to be elected president was James K. Polk. No Senate president pro tempore has ever been elected president, although John Tyler was elected vice president and later ascended to the presidency. Given the power these offices have, it’s somewhat surprising that only two congressional leaders have become president. It seems the skills of legislative leaders are not what the American people want in a president, and with good reason. Congressional leaders rarely have substantial executive or foreign policy experience, and spend most of their time raising money for their colleagues. Because seniority plays such a large role in leadership contests, they tend to come from ideologically extreme areas — safe seats, not representative of the country as a whole.
The speaker and president pro tem are frequently adversaries of the president, lack relevant experience to be president, and tend to be ideologically extreme. They shouldn’t be at the top of the line of succession.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. From 1886 to 1947, the line of succession was the same as it is today, with two notable exceptions — the speaker and president pro tem were not included. Reverting to the older line of succession would put the secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and secretary of defense after the vice president, which makes much more sense. A time of succession is likely to be a time of extreme uncertainty and danger for our country. We would be far better off with an experienced statesman such as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, or Condoleezza Rice than with a little-known partisan politician such as John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, or whichever poor soul gets the gavel next.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins, 20, is a student at Bates College and a Democratic Town Committee member from West Hartford. He can be reached on Facebook
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