There has been talk of presidential succession, which brings up an issue I have with our line of succession.
Even people in government can be confused about the line of succession after the Vice President. When there was an attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan early in his term and he was rushed to the hospital, Vice President George H. W. Bush happened to be in Texas. Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously took to a lectern in the White House press room to declare “I am in control.”
Even Haig, who had been in government for over a decade at that point, didn’t know that he was not next in line. A regular citizen couldn’t be blamed for not knowing how it works.
The actual line is covered under the Presidential Succession Act, which was passed in 1947. Fans of the show Designated Survivor know that the line it mandates runs pretty deep into the list of cabinet members. Before it gets to them though, it runs from Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate then to the Secretary of State.
Until the act passed, the succession ran from Vice President to President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This was important up until the 1960’s since there was no mechanism to appoint a Vice President, meaning that succession to the office of President or the death of resignation of a Vice President could lead to a vacancy in the office for years. Since 1947, the Speaker has been ahead of the President Pro Tem.
That said, the President Pro Tem is the part I find problematic. Unlike the House Speaker, the President Pro Tem has few actual duties. De jure, he (they have always been men) is supposed to preside over the Senate when the Vice President isn't around; in reality, other senators usually take on this duty.
Given that there are few substantive duties either as a party leader or administrator of the Senate (oh yeah, there is always running the page school), the President Pro Tem has been, for well over a century, a way to honor the longest serving member of the majority party.
Right now that's Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who will be close to 90 at the end of his current term. From all indications, he seems to still be sharp (despite his infamously weird twitter feed). It isn't, however, difficult to imagine someone less in possession of their faculties in an office that, one must remember, is placed pretty high up in the line of succession. There are plenty of examples of it.
Recent President Pro Tems have included Strom Thurmond, who ran against Harry Truman but served in the office as late as 2001. There were a whole pile of problems with Thurmond (don't get me started), but he was also a 99 year old man who was clearly in cognitive decline. Only the defection Lincoln Chafee from the Republican party saved us from having him be in the line of succession on 9-11.
By the way, that put Robert Byrd, then 84, in the line of succession instead.
My own state's Carl Hayden was President Pro Tem in his last term, a time that included a presidential assassination, the death of a house speaker and a long vacancy in the office of Vice President. Hayden was ill so often in that term that his colleagues designated another senator to be (your old Latin teacher will hate this) Permanent Acting President Pro Tempore.
It is difficult to imagine a party in the house electing a Speaker that is in severe mental or physical decline; there are simply too many things asked of the position. It’s seen as too important for sentiment. Ironically, the fact that the President Pro Tem has few responsibilities mean that the Senate, always hidebound by ceremony, has used it as a way to honor long time members. Unfortunately, the one substantive, important role that it plays makes that tradition dangerous for our country.