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The Sausage Factory

State of the Union: The Unheralded Absent Cabinet Secretary

The report on the State of the Union is required by the Constitution and has become an American tradition over the last century (Thomas Jefferson ended Washington’s and Adams’ practice of delivering a formal speech and sent the report in writing – and it stayed that way until Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver his in person). Standing proudly in front of the crowd gathered at the House Chamber, the President enjoys a prime view of those who will witness his speech firsthand: the nine Justices of the Supreme Court, Members of Congress, Senators, and his hand picked Cabinet, amongst a large number of other guests. This year, as in year’s past, President Obama’s speech laid out his vision for 2013 and beyond, in a speech that was applauded by Democrats and tolerated by Republicans. Yet there was one member of the Obama administration who avoided the speech completely, hiding from the commotion within the Capitol—Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

That is not to say that Chu was angry with the President or so disgruntled with Congress that he skipped the speech on purpose. Chu was selected as this year’s “designated survivor” for the President’s State of the Union speech, a role that has become a tradition, and a duty, that dates back to at least the Cold War. This person is a Cabinet Member selected to miss the State of the Union address (or any other joint session of Congress) and tasked with running the Federal Government should disaster strike the Federal officials gathered at the Capitol.

To be eligible as a designated survivor, the secretary must meet the same Constitutional requirements as the President: be a natural born citizen who is at least 35 years old and has resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years. These are very different than being appointed to the President’s Cabinet, which is briefly mentioned in the Constitution and does not hold any specific requirements.  This may leave some secretaries ineligible to serve as President, and therefore as designated survivor, such as former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, who emigrated from Cuba as a teenager.

Though it holds roots in Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution, it was the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 that established the order of succession that remains in place today. The law ranks the cabinet successors in the order their department was created.  The State Department was first and the Department of Homeland Security the last. Beyond that the history of designated survivor is somewhat vague. Following World War II, the United States and Russia emerged as the world’s superpowers, with nuclear war seemingly one small conflict away. In order to maintain a working Constitutional government during a national emergency, the idea of “Continuity of Government” was developed to ensure the Federal Government would continue to function in the worst of situations. Historian Michael Beschloss told PBS this plan “became all important during the Cold War, around the Eisenhower period…”

However, the Senate Historical Office lists the earliest public records of a designated survivor in 1984, when Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. skipped President Reagan’s State of the Union.  It’s hard to believe but Federal officials indeed maintained the confidentiality of this plan, conceived in the 1950s, through roughly 30 years of presidential transitions. Today, the Continuity of Government program falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor, which provides “policy guidance to Executive Branch Departments and Agencies regarding continuity programs.” This program was put into full effect for the first time following the attacks of September 11, and was most recently revised in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush.

In today’s world, one would assume that an absent secretary with so much responsibility would be hidden in a remote undisclosed location far away from Washington, DC. The truth is the designated survivor can watch the speech from virtually anywhere – albeit with Secret Service protection and resources at his or her disposal. Meena Ganesan of PBS reported that past designees had stayed in Washington and ordered pizza while others have left the Beltway completely.  The two imperatives are that the designated survivor needs only to be in a discreet location during the State of the Union and be in a position to lead the government should the unthinkable happen.

Even in the first year that a newly elected President delivers a speech to a joint session of Congress (which not considered an official “State of the Union” address), a single Cabinet member is still asked not to attend.  In reality, designated survivor could rank as high as fourth or as low as fifteenth in the chain of succession, despite only a month on the job! However, the lack of time in a new administration is disconcerting, but U.S. Secretaries often bring executive experience from their previous careers: Senate records show that since 1984, three former designated survivors had served as governors of their states, and two later went on to become governors, including current Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.

That is not to say the selection of a secretary is completely random or arbitrary. Since 1984, the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture (ranked eighth and ninth in line of succession, respectively) have both served in this role six times each. The reason why a certain Cabinet member is chosen is not usually disclosed. And though there are many implications of agreeing to this position, it is rare to see a person perform this duty more than once. In fact, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans is the only known Secretary to miss two State of the Union addresses (2004 and 2005).

By skipping this year’s speech, Secretary Chu made history as the first Energy Secretary to serve as designated survivor since the Senate Historical Office began keeping records of the position. He is also the lowest ranking secretary to serve in this position since Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson missed the address in 2006.

None of this talk of a Presidential designated survivor is to say Members of Congress and Senators are expendable. Remember, the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore are second and third in line to the presidency, respectively. According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, Representative John Kline was the House’s designated survivor at this year’s State of the Union, viewing the President’s speech from an off-site location. In the event of a catastrophe, Kline could potentially have assumed the role of Speaker, and became second in the line of succession in a new government.  It should be noted that after 9/11, both the House and Senate developed plans for the continuity of the legislature in the event of a national disaster.

It is likely the designated survivor was thought to be a necessity of the past following the end of the Cold War. But with the threats that the new millennium has presented, this position may be more important than ever.  Having a plan to weather the type of catastrophe that would make the designated survivor President of the United States is necessary to ensure to continuity of a government at a time of unprecedented internal or external threat to the survival of our Constitutional republic. Let us pray to God this exercise in planning will never amount to more than an inconvenience for one Cabinet member who misses out on all the pomp and circumstance that has become the State of the Union address.

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