An interesting article in The Atlantic Monthly discusses Norman Ornstein’s Doomsday Scenario–what would happen if a terrorist attack wiped out most of the Congress.

As set by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (which Ornstein calls “an abomination”), the line now goes from the Vice President to the speaker of the House to the Senate president pro tempore (who until two years ago was the terrifyingly dotty Strom Thurmond) and then down through the Cabinet, according to the order in which the offices were created. “You have a provision in this law,” Ornstein says, “which is just mind-boggling—that if you go down to the Cabinet level to fill the presidency, the speaker can at any subsequent point bump that person and assume the office.” In other words, if a catastrophe made Secretary of State Colin Powell acting President, a quorum of Burton, Istook, and DeLay could elect DeLay the new speaker, and he could elbow President Powell right out of office. Not scared yet? Assuming that the Supreme Court had also been destroyed in the blast, President DeLay would then be in a position to fill all those vacancies.

Actually, the 25th Amendment all but precludes this happening. Unless the President and Vice President are killed simultaneously, the Act never comes into play. Further, even if it did, and we wound up with one of the more radical Members of Congress as President, the checks and balances system of our Constitution would soon kick in. State governors would quickly appoint replacements to the House and Senate and block most measures that Ornstein seems to fear. And, indeed, if we have a terrorist attack that takes out the President, Vice President, and most of both Houses of Congress, John Ashcroft will be the least of my concerns.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. George says:

    This is a major issue that Newt raised before 9/11. He has pushed it many times since 9/11.

    Somehow simply because it comes from his mouth it is discounted no matter how important.

    We need look no further than Texes to see that the quorum requirement can have some unexpected consequences.


    BTW As I recall Newt was for letting the Govs appoint someone for 120 days but I forget.