The death of Senator Robert Byrd brings a new Senate President Pro-Tempore, as well as questions about wisdom of that system. The President Pro-Tempore of the Senate is a position given to the most senior U.S. Senator of the majority party. There are also new questions about whether the President Pro-Tempore system still makes sense.
Most of what people talk about is the recent trend of PPTs being old guys from small states who keep their seats by bringing a lot of pork to their states. Of course, these people only gain such seniority because they enter the Senate relatively young. That is less likely to happen in places like New York or California, where races are competitive, visible and expensive. But over the course of history, many relatively large states have produced multiple PPTs. So, we shouldn’t get too distracted by a short-term trend of PPTs from Alaska and West Virginia. It may not work that way in the future.
But, I think there is a systematic problem of PPTs being a bit too old, too cocooned by seniority, and unrepresentative of broad, national interests. I don’t think the system puts them in position to have the skills or the responsiveness to assume presidential duties. So, I think it makes sense to have a Senate Majority Leader serve in that role, or let the Senate select one of its members at the beginning of each new congress. The only concern is that suddenly uprooting the Majority Leader could disrupt Senate business during a crisis. Another small concern is that the Majority Leader would now have to be eligible to serve as President, and I’m not sure it’s a great idea to put so many restrictions on who can serve in an important position like Majority Leader. It’s possible a Majority Leader could be foreign born or a former president (or both in a few years, depending on what you believe about Obama).
If the Senate were to select the PPT by voting, their choice should be governed by some minimum seniority requirement, and some requirement that the PPT has broad background for high national office. I think the Senate should be responsible for making their selection properly, and keeping the position filled at all times with an eligible selection. If that doesn’t happen, then PPT position gets skipped in the line of succession. That would put the responsibility for certainty on the Senate, and would ultimately provide nearly as much certainty and reliability as the original PPT system.
I think the real reason people are questioning the PPT system is that a former klansman leader was third in line of presidential succession behind our black president. That’s not some weird irony. That’s a serious, relevant detail about our democratic experiment. Byrd entered the Senate in 1958 in West Virginia, which must be one of the few scenarios in which a klansman could find himself today in the U.S. Senate. Some people call Bush a fascist and Obama a socialist, but here is a guy for whom his worst media moniker is literally true and probably under-discussed. And you should see the videos of him on YouTube. They’re ridiculous. It makes the PPT position look stupid.
That’s not to deny that Byrd is a bright individual with good character traits too. He was valedictorian of his high school, he is extremely knowledgeable about the Constitution, and he has done many good things in an unprecedented career. He had the talent and dedication to be a big figure in politics, and he was. But, he now provides a bad example on important contemporary issues.