What if We're Still Waiting Jan. 20?

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With no president named by January 20, the Republicans win, at least in the short term. The acting president in case there is no president or vice president to fulfill the duties is (remember your civics classes) the Speaker of the House. Since the new Congress will already be in session on January 20, the Speaker will most likely be Republican Dennis Hastert. If for any reason the Coach can't take over the top job, next in line is the president pro tempore of the Senate, the venerable Strom Thurmond ("pro tempore," by the way, is fancy lingo for "oldest guy"). This of course has led to lots of ageist chuckling (the most outrageous: the Onion's assertion that a President Thurmond would appoint Orval Faubus as Secretary of Slaves).

The Cabinet issue is a particularly important one, because if Thurmond can't serve as president, the office then goes to members of the President's Cabinet in the historic order in which their posts were created. Because Cabinet members serve until they resign or are replaced, and if Hastert or Thurmond hasn't made new appointments, the succession goes like this:

First would be secretary of state, but because Madeleine Albright wasn't born in the U.S., she doesn't qualify. That moves us down to Treasury, and Larry Summers, which could lead us to the very elegant situation in which the man who signs your sawbucks is also the commander-in-chief. Following Summers, the line is:

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