by Lowman S. Henry | August 05, 2003

Homeland Security chief could move up in line of Presidential Succession

When we last checked in with Tom Ridge he was busy becoming the first secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security. Setting up what has become one of the largest cabinet agencies has been a difficult and demanding job. But, judging from the lack of screaming editorials and Congressional hearings, we can assume Pennsylvania’s former governor has been doing well – at least there are few complaints.

It did come as a bit of a surprise thought to find a bill speeding through Congress to move Secretary Ridge up in the line of Presidential succession. While Ridge’s name has often been bandied about as a replacement for Vice President Dick Cheney, should he be unable to continue in office, the issue of Presidential succession has not previously arisen.

Presidential succession is currently defined under provisions of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 which was signed into law during the Truman Administration. The issue has resurfaced in nation’s capital in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in which speculation holds Flight # 93 which crashed in Somerset County was actually headed for either the White House or the Capitol.

How to keep the federal government operating in the event of such a disaster moved from the pages of Tom Clancy novels to real life public policy concern in the wake of September 11th. How best to keep the country running, and respond to imminent threats, now requires careful planning and consideration.

Hence the move to elevate the Secretary of Homeland Security in the line of Presidential succession actually has little to do with Tom Ridge, capable though he is, and everything to do with who will be best prepared to lead America should such a cataclysmic event ever occur.

Constitutionally, the Vice President is first in line of Presidential succession. Then, under provisions of the Presidential Succession Act, the Speaker of the House, and Senate President Pro Tempore – currently Representative Dennis Hastert and Senator Ted Stevens, stand in line to move into the oval office, assuming it is still standing. After that Presidential cabinet secretaries come into play starting with the secretaries of State, Treasury, and Defense, followed by the U.S. Attorney General. After them, cabinet secretaries stand in line based upon when their department was created.

Since the Department of Homeland Security is the last cabinet department to have been established, that currently puts Tom Ridge 18th in line for the Presidency. Which means if for some reason the President, Vice President, Congressional leadership, and all the other cabinet secretaries were to die today, Tom Ridge would become President.

While the thought is probably not keeping Secretary Ridge or anybody else up at night, Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio and Representative Christopher Cox of California are thinking of who among this list of potential Presidential successors would be best able to run the country during what would obviously be a time of great risk and peril to our nation’s security.

They have concluded that the Secretary of Homeland Security, given the nature of that department’s book of business, would be better prepared to assume the Presidency in such catastrophic times than say, the Secretary of Housing or the Secretary of Education.

To that end, they have introduced legislation that would move the Secretary of Homeland Security up ten spots and place the position eighth in line to the Presidency –behind the Vice President, Congressional leaders, and the four original cabinet offices of State, Treasury, Defense, and the Attorney General.

DeWine’s bill won Senate approval without debate and is now awaiting action in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is likely to sail through that chamber as well and head to President Bush’s desk.

While it is unlikely the United States will ever see a day so dark as one which would propel the Secretary of Homeland Security, even eighth in line, into the Presidency, it is prudent for Congress to prepare for such disaster scenarios.

There is one other such scenario which needs some attention. Had Fight # 93 crashed into the U.S. Capitol rather than a field in Somerset County on September 11th, it is likely almost all of Congress would have been killed. The process by which we fill Congressional vacancies is cumbersome and time consuming. As Congress revisits the President Succession Act, it should also streamline the process for seating a new Congress.

It is hard to fathom such a situation every occurring. But then again, on the morning of September 11, 2001, who would have ever thought …