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Don't Worry About Olympus, We Have a Plan
March 25, 2013

An interesting occurrence took place this week with both the President and Vice-President of the United States absent from American soil for a brief period of time. On March 19, President Obama was aboard Air Force One over the Atlantic Ocean on his way to Israel for a trip to the Middle East while Vice-President Biden was returning from Rome where he had attended the inaugural Mass of the new Pope, Pope Francis, at the Vatican.

This left, for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, Speaker of the House John Boehner, not a member of the President and Vice-President’s political party, the top governmental official on American soil.

Speaker Boehner’s place as the number 3 man in American government is the result of current law. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 establishes the line of succession to the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States in the event that neither a President nor Vice-President is able to “discharge the powers and duties of the office.” The Act places the Speaker of the House as the first successor. The Act reads, in part:

…[i]f, by reason of death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, there is neither a President nor Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall…act as President…

Now pair this rare event with the release of a new movie this past week, Olympus Has Fallen, about an attack on the White House that results in the President of the United States being taken hostage by terrorists, and some might be wondering: “who is in charge if the President is out of communication or incapacitated?”
Now, I haven’t seen the new movie but I can guess, much like the late-1990’s tour de force Air Force One starring American treasure Harrison Ford, there is a scene where the nation’s national security team debates who is in charge with the President in a position where he is incapable of giving directives to his government and military.

The Constitution of the United States offers some guidance. Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

So before anyone starts to wonder why Speaker Boehner didn’t take his 15-20 minute window to repeal Obamacare or implement his solutions to the debt-crisis, the fact is that to have actually been cloaked with any of the powers of the Office of President of the United States, there would have to have been an invocation, twice, of Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

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