The next next president

TWO YEARS after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the hints that the Capitol and the White House were targets, our lawmakers still haven't drawn up a workable doomsday leadership plan.

Because those in the presidential line of succession spend many of their days in the same swath of D.C. -- many in the same buildings -- there's a whisper-thin chance that they all could be felled in a few choice blows.


While the Constitution, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 and the 25th Amendment lay out the route of the presidency, they don't take into account the extreme case: massive, multiple casualties at the very top. Sadly, Americans now know such a thing is possible. What we need is some federal life insurance, and now.

Some suggest creating a second, "standby" off-site vice president job, which could be filled by appointment and might be an ex-veep or ex-president. Or adding governors of the largest states to the succession list, under the assumption that they would be out of the line of fire and would have the needed executive-level experience to carry the country forward during a crisis.


Whatever Congress decides to do, the lines need to be crystal clear. No one wants a repeat of former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s "I'm in control here" episode after President Reagan was shot.

While they're at it, members of Congress also should consider taking the congressional leadership out of the line of succession. That would prevent a new speaker of the House (assuming the current one had perished in the crisis) from wresting the presidency from the original secretary of state, since speaker comes second in succession and secretary of state comes fourth. It also would prevent speakers from using impeachment to put themselves in the White House.

That's not the only "doomsday" issue. Constitutional provisions for filling vacant seats in the House of Representatives -- by general election -- assume that only one or a few seats would stand empty for as long as an election took. But if something bad were to happen, say during a State of the Union speech, hundreds of seats could be vacant.

Ensuring the continuity of the House -- whether it be by governors' appointment, member wills naming a successor or immediate elections -- would require a constitutional amendment. Fixing an emergency chain of command merely needs an act of Congress. It's time.