Democrats should oust Pelosi from suc­ces­sion line

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - By Jonathan Bern­stein Bern­stein is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist cov­er­ing pol­i­tics and pol­icy.

The top or­der of busi­ness when the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives re­turns from re­cess on Oct. 15 is cer­tain to be the im­peach­ment in­quiry into the con­duct of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Here’s some­thing the law­mak­ers should take care of first: chang­ing the pres­i­den­tial line of suc­ces­sion to re­move the speaker of the House and the pres­i­dent pro tem­pore of the Se­nate.

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion spec­i­fies that the vice pres­i­dent takes over if a pres­i­dent leaves of­fice. Af­ter that, pres­i­den­tial suc­ces­sion is up to Congress, which has changed the pro­ce­dure sev­eral times through­out U.S. his­tory.

There are two strong rea­sons to change the law again now: It’s the best way for the Democrats to han­dle im­peach­ment, and it’s best for the na­tion.

With Trump claim­ing that the con­sti­tu­tional process of im­peach­ment amounts to a “coup,” it’s a good idea for Democrats to make it as clear as pos­si­ble that they have no in­ten­tion of over­turn­ing the 2016 elec­tion by in­stalling a Demo­crat in the White House.

That’s im­por­tant be­cause Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sec­ond in line to re­place Trump un­der cur­rent law, be­hind Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence.

A Repub­li­can wouldn’t have to be para­noid to imag­ine the Democrats try­ing to ma­neu­ver past Pence, es­pe­cially now that Pence’s name has come up as a pos­si­ble char­ac­ter in the drama at the heart of the im­peach­ment in­quiry — the ef­fort to press the pres­i­dent of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s lead­ing Demo­cratic ri­val, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den.

As long as Pelosi re­mains in the line of suc­ces­sion and con­trol of the White House is even po­ten­tially at stake, Repub­li­cans will have an in­cen­tive to fight back against a le­git­i­mate in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Pence’s po­ten­tial role in the Ukraine scan­dal.

By tak­ing Pelosi out of the mix, Democrats wouldn’t be giv­ing up a real­is­tic chance of gain­ing the pres­i­dency, any­way. If Trump is im­peached by the House and re­moved by the Se­nate, Pence will be­come pres­i­dent and nom­i­nate a new vice pres­i­dent. That’s the pro­ce­dure set forth by the 25th Amend­ment and used twice since its rat­i­fi­ca­tion in 1965.

But even a lit­tle un­cer­tainty about that out­come might be enough to push oth­er­wise open-minded Repub­li­cans away from vot­ing for im­peach­ment or con­vic­tion. In­sure that Repub­li­cans keep the pres­i­dency, and the con­flict is re­moved.

And it’s the right thing to do from a good-gov­ern­ment per­spec­tive. It’s al­ways been a mis­take to insert mem­bers of Congress into the pres­i­den­tial line of suc­ces­sion; it’s con­trary to the en­tire struc­ture of the con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem, which sep­a­rates leg­isla­tive from ex­ec­u­tive in­sti­tu­tions and forces them to share pow­ers.

It also violates the ba­sic par­ti­san ar­range­ments of U.S. elec­tions. Once the po­lit­i­cal par­ties evolved, it be­came es­sen­tial for the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent to be po­lit­i­cal al­lies to guar­an­tee that vot­ers on the win­ning side of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions would be get­ting their way, at least in terms of party, even if the pres­i­dent died or needed to be re­placed.

That wasn’t guar­an­teed at first by the Con­sti­tu­tion, which sim­ply took the can­di­dates with the top two elec­toralvote to­tals and made them pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent, and which also had no pro­ce­dure for fill­ing a va­cancy in the vice pres­i­dency.

The de­fi­cien­cies in the Con­sti­tu­tion were par­tially fixed by the 12th Amend­ment, which made sure that the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent would be elected as a linked ticket. They were fur­ther par­tially fixed by the 25th Amend­ment, which ended any am­bi­gu­ity about the vice pres­i­dent be­com­ing pres­i­dent in the case of a va­cancy and ar­ranged for fill­ing any va­cancy in the vice pres­i­dency.

But un­for­tu­nately, the 1792 law in­sert­ing two mem­bers of Congress into the line of suc­ces­sion (later re­moved and then re­stored in 1947 to el­e­vate the House speaker) re­stored a bit of that am­bi­gu­ity. It should be re­moved.

This isn’t just about, or even mainly about, im­peach­ment. The pos­si­bil­ity that the deaths or de­par­tures of two peo­ple could award the pres­i­dency to the party that lost the most re­cent elec­tion is an un­ac­cept­able risk.

Even with mem­bers of Congress re­moved from the line of suc­ces­sion, there’s still one more step needed to get the sys­tem right. Un­der cur­rent law, 15 cab­i­net of­fi­cers fol­low the Se­nate pres­i­dent pro tem, from the sec­re­tary of state at the top of the list to the sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity at the bot­tom.

That’s not ap­pro­pri­ate in a world of pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist may­hem and nu­clear con­fla­gra­tion. As the Con­ti­nu­ity in Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sion rec­om­mended af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only the four most im­por­tant cab­i­net posts should be in­cluded. Af­ter that, the pres­i­dent should des­ig­nate, and Congress con­firm, a hand­ful of dis­tin­guished in­di­vid­u­als, prefer­ably liv­ing any­where but Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to serve in case of a full-blown dis­as­ter.

But set­ting that up would re­quire care­ful draft­ing and se­ri­ous de­bate. By con­trast, elim­i­nat­ing Congress from the line of suc­ces­sion could be done quickly. When the Democrats get back to town, they should con­sider it an im­por­tant step on the road to a le­git­i­mate im­peach­ment of the pres­i­dent.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ar­rives at the Capi­tol as House Democrats move on de­po­si­tions in the im­peach­ment in­quiry of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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