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I’m asking this for my dad, Vern. Had the recent close vote on the budget in the House of Representatives been a tie, how would they have broken it? Also, not that I’m asking for any particular reason, what is the line of presidential succession? –Paul Bryant, Chicago

You’re a good son, Paul, but you should tell dad not to be shy–I love hearing from guys named Vern. There is no formal method for breaking ties in the House, and no need for one. It’s different in the Senate, which is probably why people are confused about this. The Constitution empowers the vice president, who presides over the Senate, to vote only in case of ties. The Founding Parents (I’m so PC) presumably spelled this out because the VP is not a senator and has few specific duties and they wanted him to feel like he was doing something to earn his salary.

In contrast, the presiding officer of the House, the Speaker, is a full member and can vote on any measure. By tradition, it is true, the Speaker votes only to break ties, but this custom is often breached. If memory serves, Speaker Tom Foley voted aye on the budget although there wasn’t a tie at the time.

The main thing is, there’s nothing especially awful about a tie vote. Most measures require a majority vote for passage. Since a tie is not a majority, the measure fails–no sudden death overtime, no nothing.

The presidential succession is more complicated. There are two cases to consider. The first is when the presidency becomes vacant, but the vice president is still on hand. In this circumstance Article II of the Constitution has been interpreted to empower the vice president to assume the office. The new president can then appoint a new vice president under the 25th Amendment. Thus Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford VP after Spiro Agnew’s disgrace and Ford, having been sworn in as president following Nixon’s departure, appointed Nelson Rockefeller. This process of appointment by appointees could have continued until the next regular presidential election.

If the president and vice president took it on the lam at the same time, a different law kicks in, namely the 1947 presidential-succession act. This establishes the more elaborate line of succession most people are vaguely acquainted with, even though there has never been a time when the offices of president and vice president were vacant simultaneously outside the normal quadrennial transfer of power. Should a dual vacancy occur, however, the presidency would pass first to the Speaker of the House, then the president pro tem of the Senate, then the members of the cabinet in roughly the order in which their departments were created, i.e., state, treasury, defense (replaced the war department in 1947), justice (attorney general), interior, agriculture, commerce, labor, health and human services, housing and urban development, transportation, energy, education, and veterans affairs. That’s as far as the official line of succession extends; one supposes Congress figured that if you ran through all the above and couldn’t find somebody to be president the situation would have to be so chaotic that there wouldn’t be much left to be president of. Guess we’d just have to call Alexander Haig.

When I was a kid, my friends and I heard it was possible to defeat a police radar gun by stuffing the hubcaps of a car with crumpled aluminum foil, on the theory that when the radar beam was reflected from the thousands of whirling facets of foil it would be totally scrambled. We heard this effect was so powerful that the radar gun might even overheat and explode. Any truth to this? –Jeff Morin, Arlington, Virginia

No. The foil is shielded by the metal hubcaps and has no effect on the radar return. In any case the police typically beam you from ahead or behind, meaning that most of the radar reflection is caused by stuff on the front or back of your car, not the sides. Conceivably if you had, say, a six-foot-diameter windmill mounted on top of the car with the leeward side of each arm covered with foil it might throw off a Doppler-type radar. But you’d be a bit conspicuous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.