Recount Crisis Could Have Left Summers in Charge

If 2000 Florida recount had dragged on, Treasury chief might have become president

Five years ago, Lawrence H. Summers had a shot, albeit a very long one, at becoming president. President of the United States, that is.

With the outcome of the 2000 presidential election unclear, it was conceivable—or, at least, not inconceivable—that a succession crisis would have vaulted Summers from Treasury secretary to commander-in-chief.

But five years ago yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore that effectively squelched Summers’ Oval Office prospects.

For 36 days after the 2000 election, the identity of the future president remained uncertain, with Florida’s decisive 25 electoral votes up in the air. Florida’s secretary of state had declared George W. Bush the winner by a 537-vote margin, but the state’s highest court ordered a manual recount.

If the recount were not completed by inauguration day on January 20, 2001, and if Congress didn’t resolve the question, who would have occupied the White House after Bill Clinton’s term expired?

Possibly, Summers, according to a federal appellate judge, Richard A. Posner, who discussed the issue last month in an interview on “The Charlie Rose Show.”

The vice-presidential term of Al Gore ’69 would have ended on January 20 as well, so the next in line for the White House, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, was the speaker of the House: J. Dennis Hastert.

“The law requires anyone who has a federal appointment to resign, so it’s assumed that Hastert would not give up his seat in Congress and his speakership to be a temporary president until, you know, the real president took office,” Posner told Rose, according to a transcript of the show.

The next in line is the president pro tempore of the Senate, who at the time was the 98-year-old J. Strom Thurmond. He, presumably, would have faced the same dilemma as Hastert.

After Thurmond, the next person in the order of succession would be the secretary of state, who at the time was Madeline Albright. But Albright, a Czech immigrant, was born in Prague, and Article II of the Constitution requires the president to be a “natural born Citizen.”

And by law, the next in line for the presidency is the Treasury secretary. Summers had held that post since 1999.

“So you have a situation, Larry Summers becomes president on January 21, and then maybe a few weeks later, Congress finally decides who is the president,” Posner, a 1962 graduate of Harvard Law School, told Rose.

The high court’s ruling on December 12, 2000 halted the Florida recount, delivering the state’s electors—and the White House—to Bush.

That effectively ended Summers’ presidential prospects—until March 2001, when an institution that predates the U.S. by 140 years came knocking at Summers’ door.

A spokesman for Summers, John Longbrake, said the president could not be reached for comment. The president of Harvard, that is.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.