NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Continuity of Government in A Terrorist Era

March 11, 2002

In an era of terrorism, we no longer have the luxury of avoiding such issues as continuity of Congress and presidential succession in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C.

A nuclear attack on the Capitol or the White House could mean:

  • Congress might be inoperable for weeks or months -- at the very time it is most needed.
  • The Constitution requires a quorum of half the members of each house in order to conduct official business -- but hundreds of members might be killed or incapacitated in an attack.
  • The Constitution allows states to fill vacancies in the Senate -- but all House vacancies have to be filled by special elections, which typically take three to six months.
  • The Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (as amended) direct that if the president is killed, the line of succession runs from the vice president to the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the cabinet in order of creation of the posts, starting with the secretary of state.

Here are some suggestions now being advanced to assure orderly and unambiguous continuity of the Legislative and Executive branches:

  • Constitutionally empower governors or state legislatures to replenish Congress by appointments until members are able to return to service or until special elections are held if large numbers of Congressmen are killed.
  • Expand the line of presidential succession to include state governors.
  • Since the Constitution requires those in the line of succession to be officers of the United States, allow the president to deputize several governors as heads of their state militias.

Whatever plan is chosen, time is of the essence in today's terrorist climate.

Source: Norman Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute), "Preparing for the Unthinkable," Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2002.


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