The Sept. 11 attacks didn't make Congress less complacent about the line of succession.

Congress Still Has No Plan for Terror Attacks

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Norm Ornstein reminds us again that 13 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress still hasn’t bothered to undertake basic planning for continuity of government to respond to a horrific terrorist attack or anything else that suddenly incapacitates any or all branches of the U.S. government.

This is a bipartisan, bicameral failure.

And there’s no good excuse for it. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Norm and Tom Mann put together a blue ribbon bipartisan commission, which drafted plans spelling out what to do if any branch of government was unable to function. There are lots of good ideas, and if Congress doesn’t like them, it had 13 years to come up with something else. Instead, however, it has spent that time refining a “we-hope-it-never-happens” plan.

In particular, the commission called for a much-needed fix to the presidential succession schemethat Congress adopted in the 1940s. The current law's biggest flaw is that it puts the speaker of the House and (even worse) the president pro tempore of the Senate in the line of succession. The commission's plan would have eliminated the possibility of a Glen Walken, the fictional speaker who became a short-term president on "The West Wing."

They also cut off the cabinet line of succession after the secretaries of State, Defense, Justice and Treasury, so no more Laura Roslins (she may have been a great president of the colonies on "Battlestar Gallactica," but her real-life equivalent would be ill-equipped to step up during a national emergency). Instead, the commission suggested that presidents designate four distinguished Americans as the line of succession after the vice president and four cabinet members: people with experience at the highest levels of government and who could be regularly briefed on national security issues, allowing them to be up to speed in a crisis. A Democrat might designate Al Gore or Leon Panetta; a Republican might choose Colin Powell or Robert Gates.

As I said, if Congress doesn’t like that plan, it should come up with an alternative. But the status quo is a constitutional mess, and dangerous in an era of terrorism.

Continuity of government isn’t glamorous, and isn’t going to win anyone any votes back home. It is, however, the responsibility of lawmakers to make sure that a calamitous attack doesn’t have even more calamitous consequences. They haven’t been doing their job. It’s time.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net