The recent 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should have served as a reminder of something that hasn’t changed in all that time but needs to: the ability of the federal government’s three branches to re-establish themselves if another attack devastates them.
The failure to fix this constitutes a reckless gamble on the part of an irresponsible Congress.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 just doesn’t cut it in a time when nuclear devices in suitcases or other weapons in the hands of terrorists could blow up the White House, the Supreme Court and the Capitol, leaving almost no one in charge.
And it’s not as if no one has thought about this. Right after 9/11, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute got together with Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and created the Continuity of Government Commission. It was co-chaired by former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler and former Sen. Alan Simpson. The result was three reports recommending how each branch of the government should proceed to reconstitute itself in case of a catastrophe.
But as Ornstein wrote recently in The Washington Post, “We had allies across party lines in both houses. But little of consequence happened.” Congress bickered away the opportunity to do the right thing.
It’s scary to think about how close Americans came on 9/11 to a major disruption in the ability of the government to function.
One hijacked airplane did hit the Pentagon, briefly unsettling military leadership. And the airplane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania seems to have been aimed at the Capitol, where lots of members of Congress would have been assembled. The Capitol, of course, is just across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court, and on the morning of 9/11 there was a meeting there of many members of the federal judiciary. Imagine a hit that would have flattened both the Capitol and the court.
On that same morning, President George W. Bush was being flown to a secure location after a trip to Florida and Vice President Dick Cheney had been sent to an underground bunker at the White House.
Will such things ever happen again? There are no guarantees, even though the government is working to prevent such attacks and, in fact, has managed to thwart any major terrorist assaults on U.S. soil since 9/11. But the recent emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group suggests that such networks will continue to try to implode the federal government. A breakdown of order in the United States would be their biggest prize.
President Harry S. Truman insisted on a revised Presidential Succession Act in 1947. It’s now time for some other federal elected official to take national leadership and move to make sure our government can continue to operate in the aftermath of disaster.
If ever there was a bipartisan cause, it is this. Who will step up to the task?