The coin on its edge: Dennis Hastert, America's next president?

By Joe Schembrie
web posted November 13, 2000

The next president of the United States could well be Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

The closeness of the recent presidential election is a surreal nightmare. In the state of Florida, on which everything depends, Bush's lead over Gore is down to 327 votes. In the entire nation, a hundred million votes were cast -- so the election could be decided by one third of one thousandth of one percent of the total vote.

If you divided that entire voting continuum of a hundred million votes into three hundred-vote increments, you would end up with three hundred thousand slots into which an election outcome could randomly fall. The outcome of this election has fallen into the worst possible slot. It's as improbable as being struck by lightning -- only the whole nation got struck. It's like flipping a coin -- and watching it land on its edge. Welcome to the Twilight Zone Election.

"Well, a razor-thin victory is still a victory," you may say. So Florida's election will be resolved, and a winner will be declared, and it's all over . . . right?

No, the closeness of the vote makes legal challenges inevitable. And this is America's legal system, where trials drag on for years. The lawyers won't exhaust their bag of tricks until after Inauguration Day . . . 2004.

Meanwhile, we need a president.

Fortunately, the framers of the Constitution anticipated electoral college deadlock, and provided a back-up solution. Unfortunately, that solution won't help, either. The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution says, if the electoral college doesn't choose a president, that, ". . . the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the president. But in choosing the president, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each State having one vote . . . . "

In the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats each control twenty-five state delegations. So again, we face deadlock.

Again, the coin lands on its edge.

The Constitution then has a second back-up plan. The Twentieth Amendment states, ". . . the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a president elect nor a vice president elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as president . . . . "

So Congress could settle this by direct vote -- except the close election may have left the Senate evenly split between parties. Once again, deadlock looms. And again, the coin lands edgewise.

So does Bill Clinton continue in office as President-by-Default until 2004 -- and maybe for life? Is America doomed to become a banana republic? No -- there's one last Constitutional rope to grab before we tumble into the abyss. To repeat, the Twentieth Amendment states, "Congress may by law provide for" presidential succession. And Congress did provide just such a law, back in 1947.

Still in effect, the Presidential Succession Act states: "If 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 upon his resignation as speaker and as representative, act as president."

Thus, as of January 20, 2001, the constitutional terms of Bill Clinton and Al Gore having expired, the presidency automatically goes to the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. Most people will respond: "What? Who?"

Elected by the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House has a role similar to Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy, as in Great Britain or Canada. Speaker of the House is the third highest office in US government -- and given the triviality of the vice presidency's constitutional functions (i.e., break Senate ties, wait for President to die), it is the Speaker, and not the VP, who is most prepared to step into the job of President.

Dennis HastertCurrent Speaker Dennis Hastert is experienced, articulate, well-liked, well-known in national and international government circles, and has already run the Democratic Party's scandal-outing gauntlet with a clean bill. He's actually a pretty good choice for national leader.

Hastert isn't well known by the general public; two months of media frenzy will change that. When they do get to know him, most people are likely to find a Hastert presidency more acceptable than a third Clinton term -- and/or a second Civil War.

Hastert is the practical choice -- and the Constitution has spoken anyway. If Florida and the courts and Congress can't make up their minds, the Constitution and the law of the land will do it for us. And if so, on January 20, Dennis Hastert will be the Constitutionally-mandated President of the United States of America.

That is . . . unless the coin lands on its edge again.

Joe Schembrie is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at joeschembrie@enterstageright.com.

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