Three Heartbeats Away: Do We Need to Fix the President Pro Tempore System?

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Daniel Inouye, looking good.
Daniel Inouye, looking good. Photo: Marco Garcia/Getty Images

We have a new president pro tempore of the Senate — the person who, under dire circumstances, is third in line for the presidency. It's Daniel Inouye, the senior senator from Hawaii, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. He got the job the way every president pro tempore does, by being the longest-serving member of the majority party. He's a good public servant, if not exactly a mind-blowing legislative thinker. And he's 85 years old.

Inouye replaces Robert C. Byrd, who died at 92 this week, and who had visibly been growing frail for several years. Byrd had been president pro tempore on and off since 1989, trading off with Republicans Strom Thurmond and Ted Stevens as the Senate's majority shifted. Stevens held the job from 2003 to 2007, departing at the age of 83. And Thurmond didn't cede the chair until he was literally wheeled out of the chamber at age 100. By then he was pretty well addled, and was regularly directed through floor votes by aides who would bellow instructions into his nearly deaf ear. "He shouldn't have been there," a Republican legislative aide once muttered to me, shaking his head.

The Senate has been full of old guys for a long time, but just like the general population, it's getting even older. It's now the grayest it's ever been, with a median age of 63. Add to that the increasing length of incumbency: Twenty three senators, nearly a quarter of the legislature, have been in office more than twenty years.

What, exactly, keeps one there for decades? A striking number of the longest-serving senators are from small states, and are exceptional at directing pork home. (Byrd was a hall-of-famer in that sport, as was Ted Stevens, and Inouye has sent a lot of money to Hawaii, too.) It's not outlandish to suggest that managing the business of a powerful and complex state like New York or California is, even for a legislator, inherently more policy-driven than doing so for Alaska or West Virginia, and therefore more likely to qualify someone to be president. Instead, we have a system that inherently favors provincial guys who are good at hanging on to their jobs.

Therefore, since the president pro tempore is chosen not for his power but for his length of service, the job is likely to always go to a very, very old political hack. Which is fine for most of the president pro tem's job: gavel-wielding when the vice-president is out doing vice-presidential things. But presidential succession is another matter. (Do we want someone three heartbeats away who may, in fact, have only three or four heartbeats left in him?)

It's hard to change rules like this. A presidential-succession post is not one people wish to give up, and it is, to an extent, a Constitutional matter. But one solution might be that the Senate agrees to, in the future, give the president pro tempore title to the majority leader. That would guarantee that someone vigorous takes the job. To forestall any accusation of power-grabbing or partisanship, the law might be written to take effect in 2020, because nobody knows which party will be in the majority by then. (Even Inouye would have to admit that, at 95, he'll probably be ready to step down.)

Till then, and fortunately for us, the third person in line is considerably less critical than the second one, and that's the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is an engaged and vigorous 70. Take good care of yourself, Ms. Pelosi. Just in case.