If terrorists nuked D.C. during SOTUA

I’ve been having this discussion with friends, and would like to see some input from Dopers.

As you know, the annual State of the Union address is the only time when pretty much every official of all 3 branches of government are gathered in one building. Traditionally, one individual in the Constitutional line of succession is absent in case of disaster. The way I understand it, the chosen person is told of this shortly before the address, and taken by the Secret Service to a supposedly “safe” location. However, I recall reading an article on this subject in which one member of a previous Cabinet recalled that he was merely taken by a couple of SS guys to a nearby pizza joint where they munched on a large pepperoni while watching the SOTUA on a TV. I would think that since 9/11 they have become a bit more circumspect about this process, perhaps taking the individual out of the D.C. area altogether.

But let’s suppose that a group of terrorists somehow manages to smuggle a tactical nuke into D.C. Not a huge device, but one that if detonated within a few blocks of Capitol Hill would assure the annihilation of everyone present at the SOTUA. And let’s suppose that the chosen person in the line of succession is not taken far enough away, and also perishes.

We now have the entire line of succession gone. (Along with most, if not all, of the Senate, House, and Supreme Court.) What would happen?

I would assume the military would declare Martial Law. Even assuming that the military leadership is sufficiently loyal not to attempt an actual coup, what authority would they have to reconstitute the U.S. government? I know that normally some of the first post-disaster steps would be to reconstitute the Senate by having the 50 state legislatures appoint temporary Senators, and to also have the states prepare a congressional election for the House in a reasonable time frame. But with no President, would the military even have the authority to order these acts?

And if there were a sufficiently long period of chaos and a vacuum of Federal power, do you think some of the states would declare some sort of sovereignty, perhaps in some cases entering into joint alliances with other states?

I suppose the basic question is: if a scenario like this unfolded, would it mean the end of the Republic?

The governors of the states could appoint replacement senators in short order; once a quorum of senators was present to elect from their number a president pro-tempore of the Senate, that person would become President.

  • Rick

This should be in Great Debates.

There would be much public confusion, but at the top I think things would return to order fairly quickly once martial law was declared.

I doubt the acting commander-in-chief would significantly overstep his bounds - they’ve got plenty of lawyers in the military, even after the demise of DC. Probably the new Senate would select an acting President.

In most parts of the country, any maneuvers to wriggle free of the federal grip would be seen as disloyal. Perhaps not as much in PR.

So I think it would take a much more severe and long-lasting crisis to cause a Soviet-style breakup of the country.

I suspect that the military would do very little in the way of martial law or ordering any civilians to do anything- that’s not their mandate.

Their mandate is that they “will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same” This means that they are basically sworn to support and defend our form of government, and taking unilateral action without civilian government direction is pretty expressly against that, especially in the case of a single-city terrorist attack.

I suspect that the military might actually proclaim martial law in DC itself, but any National Guard troops would be under the command of their state governors, unless they were federalized.

I imagine that there would be a pretty chaotic(in a Federal sense) period until the provisional Senate got formed, but once that was in place, they could do enough Federal powers for a short period of time until the House got reconstituted, and a new president got elected. We could make a Supreme court out of existing Federal judges if need be, as well.

I’ve heard (but haven’t tried to varify) that at some time during the Cold War the line of succession was extended into the hundreds.

Here it is, as it stands constitutionally…

Speaker of the House of Representatives
President Pro Tempore of the Senate
Secretary of State
Secretary of the Treasury
Secretary of Defense
Attorney General
Secretary of the Interior
Secretary of Agriculture
Secretary of Commerce
Secretary of Labor
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Secretary of Transportation
Secretary of Energy
Secretary of Education
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Secretary of Homeland Security*

  • I think the Senate voted recently to more the Sec. of Homeland Security up to eighth, behind the A.G.

If D.C. gets hit by a nuke from a terrorist faction, I think the Republic would survive pretty much as-is. If D.C. gets hit by a nuke from another nation (say Russia or China), then I don’t think very many people on Earth would survive. So it would be kind of a moot point.

I will bet you anything you want that ‘going a few blocks to a pizza joint’ story is apocryphal.

I also doubt that the US military would declare martial law. I think whomever of the House and Senate would convene as quickly as possible (probably in a bunker in Colorado or West Virginia) and get on with the business of reconstituting the government.

I give it less than a month before everything is flowing well.

Of FAR more importance would be the loss of a few hundred thousand federal employees. What happens when the President (after appointed or whatnot) gives an order to say…the Dept of State and there’s no one to carry it out?

People make fun of federal workers (justifiably at times) but they’re the one’s who keep the wheels turning in this town…not the suits and ties who are elected.

Of FAR more importance would be the loss of a few hundred thousand federal employees. What happens when the President (after appointed or whatnot) gives an order to say…the Dept of State and there’s no one to carry it out?
In the scenario I outlined, with a small tactical nuke detonated during the SOTUA, I doubt much of Washington’s infrastructure or personnel outside of the immediate Capitol Hill area would be affected. The SOTUA takes place at night, when most of the civil servants who do the “real” work have returned to their homes. A small tactical nuke (say, just a few kilotons yield), which would be the most likely device to be either stolen, purchased or built by terrorists, would probably only totally devastate a few square blocks of D.C., though there would be some collateral damage (fires, etc.) farther out. There would, of course, be the radiation that would render a larger area unihabitable for a period of time, but most of the Federal data infrastructure is probably backed up regularly onto computers at the various relocation/COG centers (like the infamous Mt. Weather) and it would be just a matter of relocating most of the Fed employees to sites outside the immediate D.C. area.

I remember reading that the cabinet member who is designated to be absent “just in case” is sent off to a military base outside of Washington.

Besides, everyone knows what happens in a situation like this - Jack Ryan becomes President.

Tom Clancy wrote a novel about this, except it was a giant airliner that took out the government a’la 9/11.

I found it pretty interesting.

Well, in this post-9-11 era contingency plans are certainly more robust then they were. No more going to Pizza Hut.

A significant minority of the House and Senate would survive. More than a few of those cats don’t show for the SotU address. One member of The Supremes is held in reserve. As mentioned, so is one cabinet officer.

As a practical matter, constitutional authority would be preserved. Awkwardly but it would not end the Republic.

The Reagan administration did compile such a list, but without any constitutional or statutory authority. See Presidential succession: The B List. That list evidently still exists, but at best it affects only administrative authority within the executive branch; it cannot confer the Presidency on a nonstatutory successor.

With respect to the existing constitutional and legal provisions for Presidential succession, Bricker’s answer is sound.