United States presidential line of succession
The United States presidential line of succession is the order in which officials of the United States federal government discharge the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States if the incumbent president becomes incapacitated, dies, resigns, or is removed from office (by impeachment by the House of Representatives and subsequent conviction by the Senate) during their four-year term of office. The order of succession to the presidency is referred to three times in the U.S. Constitution – in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6; the 20th Amendment; and the 25th Amendment. The Article II succession clause authorizes Congress to provide for a line of succession beyond the vice president, which it has done on three occasions. The current Presidential Succession Act was adopted in 1947 (and last revised in 2006).
The line of succession follows the order of Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, and then the eligible heads of federal executive departments who form the president's Cabinet. The Presidential Succession Act refers specifically to officers beyond the vice president acting as president rather than becoming president when filling a vacancy. The Cabinet currently has 15 members, of which the Secretary of State is first in line; the other Cabinet secretaries follow in the order in which their department (or the department of which their department is the successor) was created. Those heads of department who are constitutionally ineligible to be elected to the presidency are also disqualified from assuming the powers and duties of the presidency through succession. Since 1789, the vice president has succeeded to the presidency intra-term on nine occasions, eight times due to the incumbent's death, and once due to resignation. No one lower in the line of succession has yet been called upon to act as president.
Widely considered a settled issue during the late 20th century, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 demonstrated the potential for a decapitation strike that would kill or incapacitate multiple individuals in the presidential line of succession, in addition to many members of Congress and of the federal judiciary. In the years immediately following the attacks, there were numerous wide-ranging discussions in Congress, among academics, and within the public policy community about continuity of government concerns, including the existing constitutional and statutory provisions governing presidential succession. These discussions are ongoing. One effort, that of the Continuity of Government Commission, a nonpartisan think tank, produced three reports (in 2003, 2009, and 2011), the second of which focused on the implicit ambiguities and limitations in the current succession act, and contained recommendations for amending the laws for succession to the presidency.
- 1 Current order
- 2 Constitutional provisions
- 3 Ambiguities regarding succession and inability
- 4 History of succession law set by Congress
- 5 Successions beyond Vice President of the United States
- 6 Contemporary issues and concerns
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The table below details the current presidential order of succession as established by the Presidential Succession Act 1947 (61 Stat. 380), as amended (3 U.S.C. § 19). Federal offices are listed in the prescribed order; acting officers whose prior appointment required Senate confirmation are included in the table (as their inclusion in the line of succession is implied by the language of the current act), and notation is made of officers who are constitutionally ineligible to to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for holding the presidency. To serve as president, one must:
- be a natural-born U.S. citizen of the United States;
- be at least thirty-five years old;
- be a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years.
A person who meets the above qualifications, however, would still be disqualified from holding the office of president under any of the following conditions:
- Under the Twenty-second Amendment, no person can be elected president more than twice. The amendment also specifies that if any eligible person serves as president or acting president for more than two years of a term for which some other eligible person was elected president, the former can only be elected president once.
- Under Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, upon conviction in impeachment cases, the Senate has the option of disqualifying convicted individuals from holding federal office, including that of president.
- Under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, no person who swore an oath to support the Constitution, and later rebelled against the United States, can become president. However, this disqualification can be lifted by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress.
The presidential line of succession is mentioned in three places in the Constitution:
- Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 makes the vice president first in the line of succession and allows the Congress to provide by law for cases in which neither the president nor vice president can serve.
- The 20th Amendment, Section 3, provides that if the president-elect dies before his term begins, the vice president-elect becomes president on Inauguration Day and serves for the full term to which the president-elect was elected. It further provides that if on Inauguration Day, a president has not been chosen or the president-elect does not qualify for the presidency, the vice president-elect acts as president until a president is chosen or the president-elect qualifies. It also authorizes Congress to provide for instances in which neither a president-elect nor a vice president-elect have qualified.
- The 25th Amendment, Section 1, clarifies Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, stating unequivocally that the vice president is the direct successor of the president, and becomes president if the incumbent dies, resigns or is removed from office. It also, in sections 3 and 4, provides for situations where the president is temporarily disabled, such as if the president has a surgical procedure or becomes mentally unfit. Additionally, in Section 2, the amendment provides a mechanism for intra-term vice presidential succession, establishing that vice presidential vacancies will be filled by the president and confirmed by both houses of Congress. Previously, whenever a vice president had succeeded to the presidency or had otherwise left the office empty (through death, resignation, or removal from office), the vice presidency remained vacant until the next presidential and vice presidential terms began.
Ambiguities regarding succession and inability
Although Presidential Succession Clause in Article II of the Constitution clearly provided for the vice president to take over the "powers and duties" of the presidency in thre event of a president's removal, death, resignation, or inability, left unclear was whether the vice president became president of the United States or simply acted as president in a case of succession. Some historians, including Edward Corwin and John D. Feerick, have argued that the framers' intention was that the vice president would remain vice president while executing the powers and duties of the presidency until new a president could be elected.
The hypothetical debate about whether the office or merely the powers of the office devolve upon a vice president who succeeds to the presidency between elections became an urgent constitutional issue in 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died in office, only 31 days into his term. Vice President John Tyler claimed a constitutional mandate to carry out the full powers and duties of the presidency, asserting he was the president and not merely a temporary acting president, by taking the presidential oath of office.
Many around him—including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and other members of Congress, along with Whig party leaders, and even Tyler's own cabinet—believed that he was only acting as president and did not have the office itself. He was nicknamed "His Accidency" and excoriated as a usurper.Nonetheless, Tyler adhered to his position, even returning, unopened, mail addressed to the "Acting President of the United States" sent by his detractors. Tyler's view ultimately prevailed when the Senate voted to accept the title "President," setting a momentous precedent for an orderly transfer of presidential power following a president's death, one that was written into the Constitution as section 1 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
History of succession law set by Congress
Presidential Succession Act 1792
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The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 was the first succession law passed by Congress. The act was contentious because the Federalists did not want the then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who had become the leader of the Democratic-Republicans, to follow the vice president in the succession. There were also separation of powers concerns over including the Chief Justice of the United States in the line. The compromise they worked out established the President pro tempore of the Senate as next in line after the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In either case, these officers were to "act as President of the United States until the disability be removed or a president be elected." The Act called for a special election to be held in November of the year in which dual vacancies occurred (unless the vacancies occurred after the first Wednesday in October, in which case the election would occur the following year; or unless the vacancies occurred within the last year of the presidential term, in which case the next election would take place as regularly scheduled). The people elected president and vice president in such a special election would have served a full four-year term beginning on March 4 of the next year, but no such election ever took place.
Presidential Succession Act 1886
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In 1881, after the death of President Garfield, and in 1885, after the death of Vice President Hendricks, there had been no President pro tempore in office, and as the new House of Representatives had yet to convene, no Speaker either, leaving no one at all in the line of succession after the vice president. When Congress convened in December 1885, President Cleveland asked for a revision of the 1792 act, which was passed in 1886. Congress replaced the President pro tempore and Speaker with officers of the president's Cabinet, with the Secretary of State first in line. In the first 100 years of the United States, six former Secretaries of State had gone on to be elected president, while only two congressional leaders had advanced to that office. As a result, changing the order of the line of succession seemed reasonable.
Motivation for changes to the succession in 1945
Two months after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman proposed that the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate be granted priority in the line of succession over the Cabinet so as to ensure the president would not be able to appoint his successor to the presidency.
The Secretary of State and the other Cabinet officials are appointed by the president, while the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate are elected officials. The Speaker is chosen by the U.S. House of Representatives, and every Speaker has been a member of that body for the duration of their term as Speaker, though this is not technically a requirement; the President pro tempore is chosen by the U.S. Senate and customarily the Senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service fills this position. The Congress approved this change and inserted the Speaker and President pro tempore in line, ahead of the members of the Cabinet in the order in which their positions were established.
In his speech supporting the changes, Truman noted that the House of Representatives is more likely to be in political agreement with the president and vice president than the Senate. The succession of a Republican to a Democratic presidency would further complicate an already unstable political situation. However, the changes to the succession, when signed into law, placed Republican House Speaker Joseph W. Martin first in the line of succession after the vice president.
Some of Truman's critics said that his ordering of the Speaker before the President pro tempore was motivated by his dislike of the then-current holder of the latter rank, Senator Kenneth McKellar. Further motivation may have been provided by Truman's preference for House Speaker Sam Rayburn to be next in the line of succession, rather than Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.
Presidential Succession Act 1947
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The Presidential Succession Act of 1947, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, added the Speaker of the House and President pro tempore back in the line, but switched the two from the 1792 order. It remains the sequence used today[update]. Since the reorganization of the military in 1947 had merged the War Department (which governed the Army) with the Department of the Navy into the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense took the place in the order of succession previously held by the Secretary of War. The office of Secretary of the Navy, which had existed as a Cabinet-level position since 1798, had become subordinate to the Secretary of Defense in the military reorganization, and so was dropped from the line of succession in the 1947 Succession Act.
Postmaster General removed 1971
Until 1971, the Postmaster General, the head of the Post Office Department, was a member of the Cabinet, initially the last in the presidential line of succession before new officers were added. Once the Post Office Department was re-organized into the United States Postal Service, a special agency independent of the executive branch, the Postmaster General ceased to be a member of the Cabinet and was thus removed from the line of succession.
Secretary of Homeland Security added 2006
The United States Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002. On March 9, 2006, pursuant to the renewal of the Patriot Act as Pub.L. 109–177, the Secretary of Homeland Security was added to the line of succession. The order of Cabinet members in the line has always been the same as the order in which their respective departments were established. Despite custom, many in Congress had wanted the Secretary to be placed at number eight on the list – below the Attorney General, above the Secretary of the Interior, and in the position held by the Secretary of the Navy prior to the creation of the Secretary of Defense – because the Secretary, already in charge of disaster relief and security, would presumably be more prepared to take over the presidency than some of the other Cabinet secretaries. Despite this, the 2006 law explicitly specifies that the "Secretary of Homeland Security" follows the "Secretary of Veterans Affairs" in the succession, effectively at the end of the list.
Eligibility of acting officers
Acting officers may be eligible. In 2009, the Continuity of Government Commission reported,
The language in the current Presidential Succession Act is less clear than that of the 1886 Act with respect to Senate confirmation. The 1886 Act refers to "such officers as shall have been appointed by the advice and consent of the Senate to the office therein named..." The current act merely refers to "officers appointed, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate." Read literally, this means that the current act allows for acting secretaries to be in the line of succession as long as they are confirmed by the Senate for a post (even for example, the second or third in command within a department). It is common for a second in command to become acting secretary when the secretary leaves office. Though there is some dispute over this provision, the language clearly permits acting secretaries to be placed in the line of succession. (We have spoken to acting secretaries who told us they had been placed in the line of succession.)
Successions beyond Vice President of the United States
While nine vice presidents have succeeded to the office upon the death or resignation of the president, and two vice presidents have temporarily served as acting president, no other officer has ever been called upon to act as president. On March 4, 1849, President Zachary Taylor's term began, but he declined to be sworn in on a Sunday, citing religious beliefs, and the vice president was not sworn either. As the last President pro tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison was thought by some to be next in line after the vice president, and his tombstone claims that he was US President for the day. However, Atchison took no oath of office to the presidency either, and his term as Senate President pro tempore had by then expired.
In 1865, when Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency on the death of Abraham Lincoln, the office of vice president became vacant. At that time, the Senate President pro tempore was next in line to the presidency. In 1868, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives and subjected to trial in the Senate, and if he had been convicted and thereby removed from office, Senate President pro tempore Benjamin Wade would have become Acting President. This posed a conflict of interest, as Wade's "guilty" vote could have been decisive in removing Johnson from office and giving himself presidential powers and duties. Johnson was acquitted by a one-vote margin.
In his book The Shadow Presidents, which he published in 1979, Michael Medved describes a situation that arose prior to the 1916 election, when the First World War was raging in Europe. In view of the contemporary international turmoil, President Woodrow Wilson thought that if he lost the election it would be better for his opponent to begin his administration straight away, instead of waiting through the lame duck period, which at that time had a duration of almost four months. President Wilson and his aides formed a plan to exploit the rule of succession so that his rival Charles Evans Hughes could take over the presidency as soon as the result of the election was clear. The plan was that Wilson would appoint Hughes to the post of Secretary of State. Wilson and his Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would then resign, and as the Secretary of State was at that time designated next in line of succession, Hughes would become president immediately. As it happened, President Wilson won re-election, so the plan was never put into action.
Since the 25th Amendment's ratification, its Second Section, which addresses vice presidential succession as noted above, has been invoked twice. During the 1973 vice presidential vacancy, House Speaker Carl Albert was first in line. As the Watergate scandal made President Nixon's removal or resignation possible, Albert would have become acting president and—under Title 3, Section 19(c) of the U.S. Code—would have been able to "act as President until the expiration of the then current Presidential term" on January 20, 1977. Albert openly questioned whether it was appropriate for him, a Democrat, to assume the powers and duties of the presidency when there was a public mandate for the presidency to be held by a Republican. Albert announced that should he need to assume the presidential powers and duties, he would do so only as a caretaker. However, with the nomination and confirmation of Gerald Ford to the vice presidency, which marked the first time the Second Section of the Twenty-fifth Amendment was invoked, these series of events were never tested. Albert again became first-in-line during the first four months of Ford's presidency, before the confirmation of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, which marked the second time Section 2 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment was invoked.
In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot, Vice President George H. W. Bush was traveling in Texas. Secretary of State Alexander Haig responded to a reporter's question regarding who was running the government by stating:
Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State in that order, and should the President decide he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
A heated dispute ensued over the meaning of Haig's remarks. Most people believed that Haig was referring to the line of succession and erroneously claimed to have temporary presidential authority, due to his implied reference to the Constitution. Haig and his supporters, noting his familiarity with the line of succession from his time as White House Chief of Staff during Richard Nixon's resignation, said he only meant that he was the highest-ranking officer of the executive branch of the Federal government of the United States on-site, managing things temporarily until Vice President Bush returned to Washington.
Contemporary issues and concerns
Several constitutional law experts have raised questions as to the constitutionality of the provisions that the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate succeed to the presidency. James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution, raised similar constitutional questions about the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 in a 1792 letter to Edmund Pendleton. Two of these issues can be summarized:
- The term "Officer" in the relevant clause of the Constitution is most plausibly interpreted to mean an "Officer of the United States", who must be a member of the Executive or Judicial Branch. The Speaker and the President pro tempore are not officers in this sense.
- Under the principle of separation of powers, the Constitution specifically disallows legislative officials from also serving in the executive branch. For the Speaker or the Senate President pro tempore to become acting president, they must resign their position, at which point they are no longer in the line of succession. This is seen by some to form a constitutional paradox. However, the current Act specifies that the Speaker becomes president "upon his resignation as Speaker" and as a member of Congress, allowing for a seamless transition.
- The reality that all figures in the current line of succession work and reside in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. In the event of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, it is possible that everyone on the list would be killed or incapacitated.
- Doubt (such as those expressed above by James Madison) that congressional leaders are eligible to act as president.
- A concern about the wisdom of including the President pro tempore in the line of succession as the "largely honorific post traditionally held by the longest-serving Senator of the majority party". For example, from January 20, 2001, to June 6, 2001, the President pro tempore was then-98-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
- A concern that the current line of succession can force the presidency to abruptly switch parties mid-term, as the president, Speaker, and the President pro tempore are not necessarily of the same party as each other.
- A concern that the succession line is ordered by the dates of creation of the various executive departments, without regard to the skills or capacities of the persons serving as their Secretary.
- The fact that, should a Cabinet member begin to act as president, the law allows the House to elect a new Speaker (or the Senate, a new President pro tempore), who could in effect remove the Cabinet member and assume the office themselves at any time.
- The absence of a provision where a president is disabled and the vice presidency is vacant (for example, if an assassination attempt simultaneously wounded the president and killed the vice president).
- Central Locator System
- Designated survivor
- List of United States presidential assassination attempts and plots
- United States presidential line of succession in fiction
- Order of succession
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