Early Returns

Congress Must Solve Its Succession Problem Now

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Not enough.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

What's the biggest policy takeaway from the attack on a group of congressional Republicans' baseball practice last week? Norm Ornstein argues correctly that it's yet another urgent wake-up call to Congress to act on proposals that would assure the continuity of government if a member is injured or killed. 

As Ornstein explains, the proposals come from a commission he and others convened after Sept. 11, which made clear that the current constitutional and statutory provisions for a catastrophic attack on the federal government are grossly inadequate. The framers, after all, never had to imagine the kind of nightmare scenarios that show up in our fiction all the time, from "Battlestar Galactica" to "Designated Survivor."

And the situation has become worse over time. The current presidential succession law foolishly -- and contrary to the spirit of a government of separated institutions sharing powers -- inserts the speaker of the House and (even worse) the president pro tempore of the Senate into the line of succession. It also includes minor cabinet officials, who rarely have the experience and often don't have the talent to take over in a crisis. The commission instead recommended that the president select some senior statesmen to follow the core cabinet (State, Defense, Justice, Treasury) in the line of succession. So Trump might select Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney, John Boehner and Condoleezza Rice, and then those succession backstops would be regularly briefed in the unlikely event they ever needed to serve. OK, it's Donald Trump, so he might pick his children or fifth-season contestants from "The Apprentice," but the idea is that a responsible president would pick well-known and experienced people who could command the confidence of the nation if necessary. 

As for Congress, the problem has actually become worse since the commission made its recommendation that governors be given emergency powers to appoint replacement members of the House until special elections can be held. That's because of a new law that requires additional notice before any election in order to allow military members deployed overseas to vote. That delay, while harmless for a small number of vacant seats during normal times, could be a disaster if, as Ornstein notes, the House has no quorum -- or even if the majority party is undetermined. 

The fixes the commission recommended are sensible and fairly easy. They should command bipartisan support. Instead, Congress has reacted with indifference, and presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did nothing to put it on the national agenda. 

Perhaps now Congress could finally solve the problem. It would be good revenge against the shooter who wanted to disrupt the government. Step up, Congress. 

1. Important one from Larry Bartels at the Monkey Cage on populist sentiment and populist outcomes. It's all about elites, not voters. 

2. Jonathan Lewallen, Sean M. Theriault and Bryan D. Jones at Vox on the decline of congressional lawmaking

3. Elaine Kamarck and Molly E. Reynolds at Brookings on the special elections.

4. One of the most important questions for the next few years is whether the Democratic Party will become as friendly to conspiracy theorists and charlatans as the Republican Party has become. There's nothing in my view particularly liberal or conservative about believing things that are untrue. But I do think Democrats have been fairly good at rejecting that sort of thing at an institutional level, and Republicans have not. Will it continue? I don't know: See this story about Laurence Tribe and Brendan Nyhan, reported by Steve Kolowich.

5. Greg Sargent on the special elections: "The best thing Democrats can do is recruit good candidates." Sounds right. And all indications so far show that they're doing exactly that.

6. And see also Democratic operative Steve Schale on Georgia and candidate recruitment. You may notice a running theme here. As I said yesterday, the Republican wins this week will help them a bit, but Democrats were already off to a very good start and odds are that it will continue.

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    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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