Along the Tracks

Thursday, March 14, 2002

Scary thoughts,
or Washington Left in a Pile of Byrd Droppings

An arcane piece of Capitol protocol has been weighing heavily on my mind, and the minds of many others, since that eye-opening Tuesday six months ago. I speak of the tradition in which the oldest member of the Senate’s majority party is voted the position of “president pro tem.”

According to Congressional statue authorized by the Constitution, the line of succession for the presidency goes vice president, then speaker of the House of Representatives, then president pro tem of the Senate. Being third in line for the presidency would seem to be rather far removed; indeed, never has anyone other than the vice president advanced to the top position due to death or incapacitation of the president. However, with the threats now faced by the United States, what was once unthinkable is now rather easily considered.

Let’s go back to September 11th. A fortunate bit of scheduling had placed President Bush in Florida. But suppose he had been in the White House. Congress was also in session, just down Pennsylvania Avenue. Let’s also suppose the hijackers had been successful in their original plans. Then rather than striking the Pentagon, that plane would have hit the White House, potentially killing Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Had the passengers and crew of Flight 93 been unsuccessful in overcoming the hijackers and sending their jet into the Pennsylvania countryside, that plane would most likely have struck the Capitol, potentially killing hundreds of legislators. You don’t have to do much more supposing to realize that, if the plane had hit the House Chamber, Speaker Dennis Hastert could have been killed, leaving the Senate’s president pro tem next in line of succession.

Presently, the pro tem of the Senate is Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd is 84 years old. He is also commonly refered to as a maverick, a euphemism used by the press to avoid calling him a corrupt, pork-barrel opportunist and former Ku Klux Klan member (a Republican of similar credentials would not be afforded such a moniker as “maverick,” of course - but that’s a whole ‘nother column).

On the other hand, if the Republicans were in control of the Senate, then by tradition 98-year-old Strom Thurmond would be the pro tem. Either way, the thought is not comforting - it is horror-inducing.

Pressure to amend the presidential succession plan is growing. Clearly, the majority leader of whichever party controls the Senate should be the person next in line after the House speaker. The majority leader at least commands the loyalty and respect of over half the democratically-elected Senate. The present president pro tem position is nothing more than the winner of a congressional version of “Survivor.”

These are serious times, and we need to provide serious answers to the dangers we face. Not being dead yet is not a good enough reason to be handed the presidency.

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