Friday will be a day many Americans will remember, from the surreal moment when President Trump tweeted his COVID-19 positive test results, to Marine One’s Medevac-like landing at Bethesda Naval Hospital 12 hours later. In between, we followed reports of additional positive test results in the president’s inner circle, infections of US senators who had attended a Rose Garden Supreme Court nomination ceremony last weekend, and worries about other senior US officials — from military to political appointees — who had been in contact with those affected. We don’t yet know how serious this outbreak will be.
But for anyone who worries about whether the US government is prepared to handle such stresses, at least we’re not alone. From the ICU, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deputized his foreign secretary to run the government. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil tested positive and blustered his way through his infection, spurning contingency planning, creating uncertainty in Brazil and abroad. In the United States, we have the 25th Amendment, which would allow Trump to temporarily transfer presidential powers to Vice President Pence should Trump’s condition worsen and he can’t perform his duties.
At home, the good news is that decades of internal planning have institutionalized executive branch protocols to ensure continuity of government in the face of mass casualty events. The bad news is that we have much further to go to adapt to the most likely, modern, post-Cold War, post-9/11 crises, and some institutions, especially Congress, remain unprepared.
What is continuity of government? Many Americans first heard the term in the reported chaos following the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan when Secretary of State Al Haig reportedly, and perhaps apocryphally, announced, “I’m in charge.” Tune in for any State of the Union address and you know that one cabinet member is safely sequestered off the Capitol Grounds to ensure the executive branch survives in the event that the Capitol is taken under siege; it even inspired the 2019 television show “Designated Survivor” in which the worst-case scenario actually happens.
The reality is far less sensational than any Hollywood production. Since 1792, the federal government has planned for a presidential emergency; in the event that the presidency is vacated, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 established a presidential line of succession. In the event that a Cabinet-level official is incapacitated, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 provides guidance on what must follow. The National Continuity Policy Implementation Plan of 2007 outlined “National Essential Functions” in the event that the federal government is immobilized. Implementation was institutionalized in the White House by the National Continuity Coordinator.
I served as State Department chief of staff during the Obama administration. The department’s Office of Emergency Management and Management Bureau, staffed largely by career public servants, maintained vigorous contingency planning for its 69,000 employees worldwide, including a medical office. This bureaucratic backbone performed a remarkable service in planning for hypothetical threat scenarios. Seared in my memory is half a day spent at the White House in tabletop exercises, coordinated among several agencies to test threat preparedness, including establishing lines of authority if political leadership were incapacitated. I was fixated on my Blackberry buzzing, worrying about emails piling up at Foggy Bottom; in hindsight, investing time to drill for the unexpected is an invaluable insurance policy for any government manager. It builds institutional muscle memory.
Are we ready today for the potential of COVID-19′s tentacles temporarily making it impossible for many senior officials to do their jobs? By July, more than 39,000 federal employees had tested positive, including 4,265 civilians at the Defense Department. Many of our continuity of government systems rely on norms, not laws to ensure smooth transitions. They’re only as resilient as the people managing the crises.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld doggedly focused on continuity of government planning after the 9/11 Pentagon attacks. But many of his reforms were never codified or were jettisoned over time. Continuity plans for specific branches of the military are guided by the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs.
Congress remains especially vulnerable. Between 1940 and 1970, more than 30 bills and constitutional amendments were written to establish emergency protocols for a mass death event. None passed. The Senate has clear procedures to appoint interim senators; the House of Representatives has no clear plan to reconstitute itself. After 9/11, Representative Brian Baird proposed “allowing governors to temporarily appoint members of Congress after a disaster.” It was defeated.
The vulnerabilities are clear. The UK moved all of its business online at the height of its COVID outbreak, and in April transitioned the House of Commons entirely online. Here, a prescient, post 9/11 bill by Representative Jim Langevin empowering Congress to meet virtually was never passed. A 2003 AEI/Brookings joint commission on continuity of government confirmed that “when a member of Congress is alive but unable to perform his or her duties, there is no way to fill what is in effect a temporary vacancy.” These issues can’t remain unaddressed when the average age of US Senators is 62, 15 percent of House Members are over 70, and a quarter of senators are also in that high-risk category.
We’re a resilient country, with strong institutions. But in a world where pandemics are more likely than terrorist attacks to cripple government, we would all be better served by investing in smarter insurance policies for the modern continuity of government.
David E. Wade was chief of staff at the US State Department and is the founder of Greenlight Strategies and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.