WASHINGTON — President Bush has formalized the line of succession at several key federal agencies in case a Cabinet secretary is killed or incapacitated, a housekeeping task with fresh meaning after Sept. 11.
With no fanfare, Bush signed a series of executive orders in the last week that mandate a lengthy list of officials and the order in which they would take control of their Cabinet agencies.
The orders don't affect the succession for the presidency, officials said.
At the Treasury Department, one of the agencies' three undersecretaries would take control "during any period" in which the secretary and deputy secretary "have died, resigned or are otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office of Secretary," Bush's order says.
Which undersecretary first?
Bush's order even answers that: the one who took his or her oath of office first.
At other departments such as Labor and Housing and Urban Development, the agencies' general counsel or solicitor general were put in line after the secretary and deputy secretary.
Bush administration officials said the lines of succession were required by Congress when it passed the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 during the Clinton administration. No one got to the job until after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"This is a housekeeping detail that sets up a line of succession within Cabinet agencies and has no impact on the presidential succession," deputy White House counsel Tim Flanigan said Monday.
However, administration officials said the task takes on new significance after Sept. 11 to ensure government business can continue even in the worst doomsday terrorism scenarios.
If a Cabinet secretary or deputy can't be located, is killed or seriously wounded, there is an official ready to step in, officials said.
The orders also address the more mundane issue of what happens when a Cabinet secretary is simply out of town or must excuse himself from a decision to avoid a conflict of interest, officials said.
Shirley Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College who wrote a book on power sharing between White Houses and their Cabinets, said traditionally the departments already had internal procedures on succession that Bush's orders simply formalize.
Bush signed executive orders Dec. 18 that set the succession lines at seven Cabinet agencies: Treasury, HUD, Commerce, Agriculture, Labor, Veterans Affairs and Interior. The plans were published in the Federal Register heading into the long holiday weekend.
Other Cabinet agencies--such as the Justice Department--weren't addressed by Bush because they already had succession lines written into law, officials said.
Some of the succession plans are quite detailed.
For instance, the Commerce Department, which oversees trade issues and provides money for business development, has a line of eight officials after Secretary Don Evans and his deputy, Samuel Bodman.
They'd be followed by the general counsel, then the undersecretaries for International Trade, Economic Affairs, Oceans and Atmosphere, Technology and Export Administration--in that order.
If the department needed to go further down the line, the agency's chief financial officer and the assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs would be next, Bush's order said.