Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Our Ambassadors and the Presidential Succession

The Congressional Research Service has just released its report on “Presidential Succession: Perspectives, Contemporary Analysis, and 110th Congress Proposed Legislation. A quick background from the CRS:

Presidential succession was widely considered to be a settled issue prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These events demonstrated the potential to disable both the legislative and executive branches of government, and raised the question of whether current arrangements are adequate to guarantee continuity in government under such circumstances. Members’ concerns may be heightened as the 110th Congress prepares not only for its successor, but a change of administration, as well. Is the United States Government at greater risk of terrorist attack during this period of transition? Are present arrangements adequate to ensure continuity in the presidency in the event of a “worst-case” scenario? Some analysts and Members of Congress advocate modifications to existing laws to eliminate gaps and enhance procedures in the area of presidential succession.

Subsequent to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a range of legislation relating to presidential succession has been introduced. To date, the change has been incremental: on March 9, 2006, the President signed the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law (H.R. 3199, Representative James Sensenbrenner, P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192). Title V, Section 503 of this act revised the order of presidential succession to incorporate the Secretary of Homeland Security as 18th in the line, following the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. (See the current presidential line of succession here).

In January 17, 2007, H.R. 540, the Presidential Succession Act of 2007 was introduced in the 110th Congress by Representative Brad Sherman. It has been referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the House Committee on the Judiciary. The first, Section 2(a)(1) of the bill (Section 1 states the short title) would comprise a major revision of the order of presidential succession by extending it to five additional officers.

Expanding the Line of Succession — Section 2 (a)(1). This section would set a new precedent in the established order of presidential succession, extending it for the first time beyond the Vice President, congressional leadership and the Cabinet. It would amend Title 3, Section 19 (d) of the United States Code, as amended by the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (120 Stat. 247) by expanding the lineup of potential presidential successors to include the U.S. ambassadors to the following five nations or organizations, in the following order:

  • the United Nations;
  • Great Britain (the United Kingdom);
  • Russia (the Russian Federation);
  • China; and
  • France

These positions would be added to the end of the current order of succession, and would expand the number of designated potential successors from 18 to 23, beginning with the Vice President and ending with the U.S. Ambassador to France. The intent here is to add high-ranking federal officers to the succession list who are normally not physically present in the Washington area at any given time. Thus, in the event of a worst case scenario, the mass “decapitation” of the U.S. Government’s political leadership, there would almost certainly be an appropriate official available to assume the acting presidency.

While some observers might note that any of the five ambassadors are very unlikely to ever accede to the acting presidency, this provision does provide, they may argue, a useful “fail safe” procedure.

The bill on presidential succession has made a regular appearance since the 108th Congress, and they have all ended in the deadpool. The Senate plans to return for a short session beginning around November 17. And while it is not certain yet, the House is also expected to return after the election. But with the economic meltdown central to most people’s mind, presumably, the same goes for our elected representatives as well. So, realistically speaking, H.R. 540 is not going anywhere. But truth to tell, I thought it would be great if this bill would get some mileage for a while. And here’s why:

According to CRS: “The ambassadors concept might not be above criticism, however. Appointees to major embassies have not always been drawn from the top ranks of the U.S. diplomatic corps. Some ambassadors, particularly those appointed to posts in the United Kingdom and France, have occasionally been major contributors to the incumbent President’s campaign, or longtime friends and supporters who may have had limited experience in either diplomacy or public service. On the other hand, the passage of this legislation might confer a sense of the enhanced importance of these posts, which could itself assure the appointment of highly qualified and experienced ambassadors to the relevant nations.”

Thank you CRS for putting that so politely. There’s a big storm out here, and it is raining hail and rain; so with nothing else to do, I thought I’d look up the five U.S. missions mentioned in this bill:


Our last five U.S. Ambassadors to the UN including the incumbent are all non-career appointees (Zalmay Khalilzad, John Bolton, John Danforth, John Negroponte, Richard Holbrooke). We have to go back to April 1992 to find a Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to the United Nations: Edward Joseph Perkins from May 12, 1992-January 27, 1993 (Prior to Ambassador Perkins, we also have Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a career diplomat who served from 1989-1992). A note on John Negroponte: he is listed as a non-career appointee to the UN in the website. He must have retired from the Foreign Service after his stint as Ambassador to the Philippines; he worked as Executive Vice President for Global Markets of The McGraw-Hill Companies from 1997 to 2001. A seasoned diplomat, he was a political appointee to the United Nations, this time around.

GREAT BRITAIN (the United Kingdom)

Our last four U.S. ambassadors to London including the incumbent are all non-career appointees: Robert Tuttle, William Farish III, Philip Lader, and Admiral William Crowe, Jr. Foreign Service officer, Raymond George Hardenbergh Seitz who served as US ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1991-1994 was our only career appointee in the last fourteen years.

RUSSIA (the Russian Federation)

Among the five missions included in this bill, Russia is the only post that has consistently been led and managed by career diplomats. The last five U.S. Ambassadors to Moscow including the incumbent are Foreign Service officers (John Beyrle, William Burns, Alexander P. Vershbow, James Franklin Collins, and Thomas Pickering). The last non-career appointee who lived in Spaso House in Moscow was Robert Strauss, a high powered Texas political figure who was America’s 19th and last ambassador to the USSR (1991), and our first ambassador to the Russian Federation (1992) during George H.W. Bush. (Strauss was commissioned to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and continued to serve as Ambassador to the Russian Federation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.) What's wrong with Moscow? Is it too cold, you think?

CHINA (People's Republic of China)

Four of the last five U.S. Ambassadors to China, including the incumbent are all political appointees (Clark T. Randt, Jr., Joseph Prueher, Jim Sasser, and James Roderick Lilley). The last career diplomat to serve as US ambassador to the People’s Republic of China was J. Stapleton Roy who served from 1991-1995.


The last five US Ambassadors assigned to No. 41 - Hôtel de Pontalba in Paris, including the incumbent are all political appointees (Craig Stapleton, Howard Leach, Felix Rohatyn, Pamela Harriman [who died at post], and Walter Curley). To find a career Foreign Service officer who last served as US Ambassador to France, we have to go all the way back to 1977 when Arthur A. Hartman, a career diplomat headed the U.S. Embassy in Paris from 1977-1981.

I supposed that if the ambassadors to these five posts are actually Nos. 19-23 in the U.S. presidential succession line, perhaps our leadership from both political parties would 1) stop selling ambassadorships, or 2) develop more stringent criteria for non-career ambassadors leading our diplomatic missions. But the law of unintended consequence also says that this has the potential to drive up the price. (I guess there is something to be said about being careful with what we're asking for). Whereas in the past a $300,000 political contribution might get you Paris or the Winfield House in London (the official residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Court of St. James's - occupying twelve and a half acres on the northwest side), who can say how high that price go if the contributor is actually in line in the presidential succession?

In 2001, the NYT covered "A Mad Scramble for Plums Posts" where 1,700 people (friends and allies of President W.) were reported to have seek top jobs at American embassies. The report states that "two hundred made the first cut. In the end, 49 lucky political appointees will receive the keys to an ambassador's residence, about the same as in other recent administrations."

In response to that article, Philip Kaiser, former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, Hungary and Austria wrote:

"John F. Kennedy, for one, used different criteria. Almost all of his noncareer appointees -- David Bruce in London, Edwin Reischauer in Tokyo, John Kenneth Galbraith in New Delhi and many others -- were professionally equipped for their posts and were not heavy financial contributors to his campaign.

Jimmy Carter also looked for professional noncareer appointees, and established a committee that included Averell Harriman and Dean Rusk to help him select able men. Unfortunately, under Ronald Reagan campaign contributions became a major criterion, a practice that continued under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton."

Actually, before Reagan there was Nixon who, according to Checkbook Diplomacy: the Buying of Ambassadorships was way blunter on this matter: "In June 1971, he told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “My point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000. . . . The contributors have got to be, I mean, a big thing, and I’m not gonna do it for political friends and all that crap.” But, despite Nixon’s determination, the price was apparently still negotiable."

In any case - I like H.R. 540 for the fact that it would shine some light on the selection of non-career appointees for some of our largest and most important diplomatic missions. But - frankly, I'm afraid at the can of worms that this would open in terms of a bidding war.

Finally, I just have to add that until we hear the candidates pledge to reduce the number of non-career ambassadors, we should for now, prepare for another mad scramble for plum assignments between January-March of 2009. I'm sure for embassy folks, this would be like Christmas; you never know what you're going to get. I tell you - I can feel a tingle up my leg!

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