Presidential Succession Act

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The Presidential Succession Act establishes the line of succession to the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States in the event that neither a President nor Vice President is able to "discharge the powers and duties of the office". The current Presidential Succession Act was adopted in 1947 and is codified at 3 U.S.C. § 19.

Congressional authority to enact such a law is twofold: Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the United States Constitution and Section 3 of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution.

Current text[edit]

3 USC § 19. Vacancy in offices of both President and Vice President; officers eligible to act.

(a)
(1) If, by reason of death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, there is neither a President nor Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, upon his resignation as Speaker and as Representative in Congress, act as President.
(2) The same rule shall apply in the case of the death, resignation, removal from office, or inability of an individual acting as President under this subsection.
(b)
If, at the time when under subsection (a) of this section a Speaker is to begin the discharge of the powers and duties of the office of President, there is no Speaker, or the Speaker fails to qualify as Acting President, then the President pro tempore of the Senate shall, upon his resignation as President pro tempore and as Senator, act as President.
(c)
An individual acting as President under subsection (a) or subsection (b) of this section shall continue to act until the expiration of the then current Presidential term, except that -
(1) if his discharge of the powers and duties of the office is founded in whole or in part on the failure of both the President-elect and the Vice-President-elect to qualify, then he shall act only until a President or Vice President qualifies; and
(2) if his discharge of the powers and duties of the office is founded in whole or in part on the inability of the President or Vice President, then he shall act only until the removal of the disability of one of such individuals.
(d)
(1) If, by reason of death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, there is no President pro tempore to act as President under subsection (b) of this section, then the officer of the United States who is highest on the following list, and who is not under disability to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President shall act as President: 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.
(2) An individual acting as President under this subsection shall continue so to do until the expiration of the then current Presidential term, but not after a qualified and prior-entitled individual is able to act, except that the removal of the disability of an individual higher on the list contained in paragraph (1) of this subsection or the ability to qualify on the part of an individual higher on such list shall not terminate his service.
(3) The taking of the oath of office by an individual specified in the list in paragraph (1) of this subsection shall be held to constitute his resignation from the office by virtue of the holding of which he qualifies to act as President.
(e)
Subsections (a), (b), and (d) of this section shall apply only to such officers as are eligible to the office of President under the Constitution. Subsection (d) of this section shall apply only to officers appointed, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, prior to the time of the death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, of the President pro tempore, and only to officers not under impeachment by the House of Representatives at the time the powers and duties of the office of President devolve upon them.
(f)
During the period that any individual acts as President under this section, his compensation shall be at the rate then provided by law in the case of the President.

Previous acts[edit]

Presidential Succession Act of 1792[edit]

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 consisted of sections 9 and 10 of a larger federal statute.[1]

Provisions[edit]

Section 9 declared that, in the event of the removal, resignation, or death of both the President and Vice President, the President pro tempore of the United States Senate was next in line of succession after the Vice President, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

If this happened, section 10 required there to be a presidential election in December of the year in which section 9 was invoked (or in December of the next year, if there was less than two months to go until December and the presidential term was not about to expire).[1]

Potential implementation[edit]

While the 1792 act was never implemented, there were ten instances when the Vice Presidency was vacant. Had the President died, resigned or been removed from office during those times, the President pro tempore of the Senate would have become the Acting President:

The act thrice came very close to being implemented:

Presidential Succession Act of 1886[edit]

Provisions[edit]

In 1886, following the death of Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks in the previous year, a new Presidential Succession Act was adopted,[4] replacing the President "pro tempore" of the United States Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives on the list with the members of the Presidential Cabinet. The order of succession was determined by the order in which each cabinet department had been created—with the Secretary of State being first in line after the Vice President. As it happens, six former Secretaries of State had gone on to be elected President in their own right and as only one Congressional leader, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives James K. Polk, had done so to that time, the change was widely accepted.

The 1886 Presidential Succession Act did not require a special presidential election to be held.

Potential implementation[edit]

As with the 1792 act, the act of 1886 was never implemented during its 61 years, but there were five instances where the Vice Presidency was vacant. Had the President died, resigned or been removed from office, the Secretary of State would have become Acting President:

Presidential Succession Act of 1947[edit]

Shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, President Harry S. Truman lobbied for a revision of the law and consequently the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 was passed.

The new law restored the Congressional officers to places directly after the Vice President, but switched their order from the 1792 Act, placing the Speaker of the House first and the President pro tempore second. The Presidential Cabinet Secretaries and Officers then followed, again in the order in which their respective departments were created.[5] In 1947 the Secretary of Defense was created, along with the United States Department of Defense, following the reorganization and removal from the cabinet of the U.S. Secretary of War (renamed the Secretary of the Army) and Secretary of the Navy, along with the creation of a new Department of the Air Force, also with its own Secretary). In 1948 the new U.S. Secretary of Defense replaced the longtime historic offices of the old Secretaries of War and the Navy in the line of presidential succession.

Potential implementations[edit]

As with its predecessors, this Act has not been implemented. There have been four instances where it would have been if the President had died, resigned or been removed from office:

  • During the first two years of this Act being in effect there was no Vice President. Harry S Truman had become President upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945.
  • Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson became President. There was no Vice President, until January 20, 1965, when Hubert H. Humphrey became Vice President.
  • There was no Vice President during the two months in 1973 between Spiro Agnew's resignation and Gerald Ford's confirmation as Vice President.
  • In 1974, there was no Vice President during the four-month period between Ford's succession to the Presidency and the confirmation of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

In the 1973 and 1974 cases, implementation of the Act was put off by Section 2 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment providing the ability to fill the two Vice Presidential vacancies.

During the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, several people holding offices in the line of succession (among them Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate President pro tempore Robert Byrd) were taken to "secure locations" in order to guarantee that at least one officer in the line of succession would survive the attacks.

When the President attends an event with the Speaker of the House, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the Cabinet, one of the members of the Cabinet does not attend. That person is the "designated successor" for that event. This is done so that, if the event is attacked and everyone else in the line of succession is killed, the "designated survivor" would become Acting President.[6] During the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, the Bush and Obama transition teams agreed to name Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as the "designated survivor" and he was taken to a secure location instead of attending the ceremony.[7]

Revisions[edit]

The 1947 act has been modified several times with the addition of new cabinet positions, but the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 caused controversy that delayed its secretary being placed in the succession order.

Many in the Congress felt the Secretary of Homeland Security should have been placed higher in the order – the rationale being that, as the officer responsible for disaster relief and security, the Secretary would be more capable of acting as President than, say, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It was proposed that he be granted the position held by the Secretary of the Navy prior to the formation of the Department of Defense. In the 109th Congress, legislation was introduced to place the Secretary of Homeland Security into the line of succession after the Attorney General,[8] but the bill expired at the end of the 109th Congress and was not reintroduced.

The matter remained unresolved until March 9, 2006, when the Presidential Succession Act was amended to add the Secretary of Homeland Security after the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.[9]

Constitutionality[edit]

The constitutionality of the 1947 Act has been disputed. Yale Law School Professor Akhil Reed Amar says the current Presidential Succession Act is "a disastrous statute, an accident waiting to happen".[10] There are two main areas of concern:

Meaning of "officer"[edit]

There are concerns regarding the constitutionality of having members of Congress in the line of succession. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution specifies that only an "Officer" of the United States may be designated as a Presidential successor. Constitutional scholars from James Madison to the present day have argued that the term "Officer" excludes members of Congress.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 16, 2003, Miller Baker stated:

The 1947 Act is probably unconstitutional because it appears that the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate are not “Officers” eligible to act as President within the meaning of the Succession Clause. This is because in referring to an “Officer”, the Succession Clause, taken in its context in Section 1 of Article II, probably refers to an “Officer of the United States”, a term of art under the Constitution, rather than any officer, which would include legislative and state officers referred to in the Constitution (e.g., the reference to state militia officers found in Article I, Section 8). In the very next section of Article II, the President is empowered to “require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments” and to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, “Officers of the United States”. These are the “Officers” to whom the Succession Clause probably refers. This contextual reading is confirmed by Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, which reveal that the Convention’s Committee of Style, which had no authority to make substantive changes, substituted “Officer” in the Succession Clause in place of “Officer of the United States,” probably because the Committee considered the full phrase redundant.[11]

In "Is the Presidential Succession Law Constitutional",[12] Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram Amar refer to Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 (a.k.a., Incompatibility Clause) as evidence that members of the Congress cannot be in the Presidential line of succession. That clause states:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.[13]

Bumping[edit]

The Act is also controversial because it provides that a cabinet officer can serve as Acting President only until a new Speaker of the House or a new President Pro Tempore of the Senate is chosen, who would then replace him as Acting President. This is sometimes referred to as "bumping"[14] and appears to contradict the text of the Constitution, which says (in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6):

The Continuity of Government Commission argued that as well as going against the language of the Constitution, bumping violates the doctrine of separation of powers by undermining the independence of the executive from the Congress:

Political question[edit]

Even if a court heard a case regarding whether the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 is unconstitutional, a court may decide not to rule on the merits of such a case. For example, in The Political Question of Presidential Succession, Northwestern University Professor Steven G. Calabresi suggests that this Act's constitutionality may be a political question.[16]

Twenty-fifth Amendment[edit]

Section 2 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment allows the President to nominate a new Vice President when the office of Vice President is vacant. The nominee becomes Vice President if confirmed by each house of the Congress.

Next in line[edit]

The following people have been next in line for the powers and duties of the Presidency of the United States (i.e., to become Acting President, in the event of the death, resignation, or removal of the President) when there was no Vice President of the United States:

After the Presidential Succession Act of 1792[edit]

# Name Office Title Party Years Reason President
1 William Harris Crawford President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic-
Republican
April 20, 1812 –
March 4, 1813
Death of Vice President George Clinton Madison
2 Langdon Cheves Speaker of the House Democratic-
Republican
November 23, 1814 –
November 25, 1814
Death of Vice President Elbridge Gerry Madison
3 John Gaillard President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic-
Republican
November 25, 1814 –
March 4, 1817
Elected President pro tempore Madison
4 Hugh Lawson White President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic December 28, 1832 –
March 4, 1833
Resignation of Vice President John C. Calhoun Jackson
5 Samuel L. Southard President pro tempore of the Senate Whig April 4, 1841 –
May 31, 1842
Death of President William Henry Harrison Tyler
6 Willie P. Mangum President pro tempore of the Senate Whig May 31, 1842 –
March 4, 1845
Elected President pro tempore upon the resignation of President pro tempore Samuel L. Southard Tyler
Vacant July 9, 1850 –
July 11, 1850
Death of President Zachary Taylor; vacancy in office of President pro tempore of the Senate; Speaker of the House Howell Cobb did not qualify due to not yet being 35 years old. Fillmore
7 William R. King President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic July 11, 1850 –
December 20, 1852
Elected President pro tempore Fillmore
8 David Rice Atchison President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic December 20, 1852 –
March 4, 1853
Elected President pro tempore Fillmore
9 David Rice Atchison President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic April 18, 1853 –
December 4, 1854
Death of Vice President William R. King Pierce
10 Lewis Cass President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic December 4, 1854 –
December 5, 1854
Elected President pro tempore Pierce
11 Jesse D. Bright President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic December 5, 1854 –
June 9, 1856
Elected President pro tempore Pierce
12 Charles E. Stuart President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic June 9, 1856 –
June 10, 1856
Elected President pro tempore Pierce
13 Jesse D. Bright President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic June 11, 1856 –
January 6, 1857
Elected President pro tempore Pierce
14 James M. Mason President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic January 6, 1857 –
March 4, 1857
Elected President pro tempore Pierce
15 Lafayette S. Foster President pro tempore of the Senate Republican April 15, 1865 –
March 2, 1867
Death of President Abraham Lincoln A. Johnson
16 Benjamin F. Wade President pro tempore of the Senate Republican March 2, 1867 –
March 4, 1869
Elected President pro tempore A. Johnson
17 Thomas W. Ferry President pro tempore of the Senate Republican November 22, 1875 –
March 4, 1877
Death of Vice President Henry Wilson Grant
Vacant September 19, 1881 –
October 10, 1881
Death of President James A. Garfield; vacancy in offices of President pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House Arthur
18 Thomas F. Bayard President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic October 10, 1881 –
October 13, 1881
Elected President pro tempore Arthur
19 David Davis III President pro tempore of the Senate Independent October 13, 1881 –
March 4, 1885
Elected President pro tempore Arthur
Vacant November 25, 1885 –
December 7, 1885
Death of Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks; vacancy in offices of President pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House Cleveland
20 John Sherman President pro tempore of the Senate Republican December 7, 1885 –
January 19, 1886
Elected President pro tempore Cleveland

After the Presidential Succession Act of 1886[edit]

# Name Office Title Party Years Reason President
21 Thomas F. Bayard Secretary of State Democratic January 19, 1886 –
March 4, 1889
Change in line of succession Cleveland
22 John Hay Secretary of State Republican November 21, 1899 –
March 4, 1901
Death of Vice President Garret Hobart McKinley
23 John Hay Secretary of State Republican September 14, 1901 –
March 4, 1905
Death of President William McKinley T. Roosevelt
24 Philander C. Knox Secretary of State Republican October 30, 1912 –
March 4, 1913
Death of Vice President James S. Sherman Taft
25 Charles Evans Hughes Secretary of State Republican August 2, 1923 –
March 4, 1925
Death of President Warren G. Harding Coolidge
26 Edward Stettinius, Jr. Secretary of State Democratic April 12, 1945 –
June 27, 1945
Death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt Truman
27 Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Secretary of the Treasury Democratic June 27, 1945 –
July 3, 1945
Resignation of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr. Truman
28 James F. Byrnes Secretary of State Democratic July 3, 1945 –
January 21, 1947
Appointed Secretary of State Truman
29 George Marshall Secretary of State Democratic January 21, 1947 –
July 17, 1947
Appointed Secretary of State upon the resignation of James F. Byrnes Truman

After the Presidential Succession Act of 1947[edit]

# Name Office Title Party Years Reason President
30 Joseph William Martin, Jr. Speaker of the House Republican July 17, 1947 –
January 3, 1949
Change in line of succession Truman
31 Sam Rayburn Speaker of the House Democratic January 3, 1949 –
January 20, 1949
Elected Speaker of the House Truman
32 John William McCormack Speaker of the House Democratic November 22, 1963 –
January 20, 1965
Death of President John F. Kennedy L. Johnson
33 Carl Albert Speaker of the House Democratic October 10, 1973 –
December 6, 1973
Resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew Nixon
34 Carl Albert Speaker of the House Democratic August 9, 1974 –
December 19, 1974
Resignation of President Richard Nixon Ford

Invocations of the Twenty-fifth Amendment[edit]

# Name Office Title Party Years Reason President Acting President
35 Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Speaker of the House Democratic July 13, 1985 Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment Ronald Reagan George H. W. Bush
36 Dennis Hastert Speaker of the House Republican June 29, 2002 Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment George W. Bush Dick Cheney
37 Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House Democratic July 21, 2007 Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment George W. Bush Dick Cheney

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and declaring the Officer who shall act as President in case of Vacancies in the offices both of President and Vice President, 1 Stat. 239, § 9-10 (March 1, 1792)
  2. ^ The American Heritage Book of the Presidents and Famous Americans, Vol. 4 (American Heritage Publishing Co., 1967), pp.298-299.
  3. ^ Akhil Reed, Amar; Vikram David Amar (November 1995). "Is the Presidential Succession Law Constitutional?". Stanford Law Review 48 (1): 113–139. doi:10.2307/1229151. JSTOR 1229151. 
  4. ^ 24 Stat. 1
  5. ^ Presidential Succession Act of 1947, United States Statutes-at-Large, 1947, pp. 380-381 (www.doctorzebra.com)
  6. ^ "Gates is designated successor on Inauguration Day". Bloomberg News. January 20, 2009. Retrieved January 23, 2009. 
  7. ^ "Defense Secretary Robert Gates to be Obama's 'Designated Successor,'" Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2009
  8. ^ S. 442, 109th Cong., February 17, 2005
  9. ^ § 503 of Pub.L. 109–177
  10. ^ Ornstein, Norman J. (9 February 2004). "It's Armageddon". American Enterprise Institute. 
  11. ^ http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/congress/2003_h/030916-baker.htm
  12. ^ 48 Stan. L. Rev. 113 (1995)
  13. ^ http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/article01/
  14. ^ Presidential Succession Act, Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Eighth Congress, Second Session, October 6, 2004
  15. ^ Second Report of the Continuity of Government Commission, 2009
  16. ^ 48 Stan. L. Rev. 155 (1995)

External links[edit]