United States presidential line of succession

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The presidential line of succession defines who may become or act as President of the United States upon the incapacity, death, resignation, or removal from office (by impeachment and subsequent conviction) of a sitting President or a President-elect.


Current order

Vice President Richard B. Cheney is currently first in the line of succession.
Vice President Richard B. Cheney is currently first in the line of succession.

The Presidential line of succession, as specified by the United States Constitution and under United States Code Title 3, Section 19 (a.k.a. the Presidential Succession Act of 1947) is currently:

  1. Vice President (Richard B. Cheney)
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives (J. Dennis Hastert)
  3. President pro tempore of the Senate (Ted Stevens)
  4. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice)
  5. Secretary of the Treasury (John W. Snow)
  6. Secretary of Defense (Donald H. Rumsfeld)
  7. Attorney General (Alberto Gonzales)
  8. Secretary of the Interior (Gale Norton)
  9. Secretary of Agriculture (Mike Johanns)
  10. Secretary of Commerce (Carlos Gutierrez, ineligible)
  11. Secretary of Labor (Elaine Chao, ineligible)
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Michael Leavitt)
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Alphonso Jackson)
  14. Secretary of Transportation (Norman Y. Mineta)
  15. Secretary of Energy (Samuel W. Bodman)
  16. Secretary of Education (Margaret Spellings)
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Jim Nicholson)

Notes on the current line of succession

Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao are ineligible to assume the Presidency, as they are not natural born citizens. Since Article Two establishes only eligibility requirements for the "office of President", and since these officials, according to the Constitution, "act as President", it had been a subject of controversy whether they would be constitutionally eligible (the same Constitutional question also exists for the residency and age requirements). To avoid a needless Constitutional dispute at what would likely be a time of great crisis, the statute (3 USC 19(e)) specifies that even the acting President must meet the Constitutional requirements for the office of President.

As of 2005, the Secretary of Homeland Security has not been put into the line of succession. Senate Bill 442, approved by the Senate on July 26, 2005, would, if it were to become law, place the Secretary of Homeland Security after the Attorney General and before the Secretary of the Interior in the line of succession. That bill and a similar House bill, H.R. 1455, are currently pending before the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee.

Constitutional foundation

The line of succession is mentioned in three places in the Constitution: in Article II, Section 1, in Section 3 of the 20th Amendment, and in the 25th Amendment.

Article II, Section 1 makes the Vice President first in the line of succession and directs the Congress to provide by law for cases in which neither the President nor Vice President can serve. The current such law governing succession is the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, codified as 3 USC 19 (Section 19 of Title 3 of the U.S. Code).

Section 3 of the 20th Amendment provides that if the President-elect dies before his or her term begins, the Vice President-elect becomes President on Inauguration Day and serves for the full term to which the President-elect was elected. The section also 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. Finally, Section 3 directs the Congress to provide by law for cases in which neither a President-elect nor a Vice President-elect is eligible or available to serve.

The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, reiterates what is stated in Article II, Section 1: that the Vice President is the direct successor of the President. He or she becomes President if the President cannot serve for whatever reason. The 25th also provides for the situation where the President is temporarily disabled, such as if the President has a surgical procedure or becomes mentally unstable. It also required Vice Presidential vacancies to be filled by the President. Previously, when a Vice President had succeeded to the Presidency or otherwise left the office empty (through death, resignation, or removal from office), the Vice Presidency remained vacated.

"Acting President" versus "President"

Vice President Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as President aboard Air Force One, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy
Vice President Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as President aboard Air Force One, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy

Article II, Section 1 provides that:

"In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President . . . until the disability be removed, or a President elected."

This originally left open the question whether "the same" refers to "the said office" or only "the powers and duties of the said office". Some historians argue that the framers' intention was that the Vice President would remain Vice President while executing the powers and duties of the Presidency; however, there is also much evidence to the contrary, the most compelling of which is Article I, section 2, of the Constitution itself, the relevant text of which reads:

"The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.

The Senate shall choose their other officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the office of President of the United States."

This text appears to answer the hypothetical question of whether the office or merely the powers of the presidency devolved upon the Vice President on his succession. Thus, the 25th Amendment merely restates and reaffirms the validity of existing precedent, apart from adding valuable new protocols for presidential disability. But, of course, not everyone agreed with this interpretation when it was first put to the test, and it was left to John Tyler, the first Presidential successor in U.S. history, to establish the precedent that was respected in the absence of the 25th Amendment.

In 1841, John Tyler became the first person to succeed to the presidency.
In 1841, John Tyler became the first person to succeed to the presidency.

Upon the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, after a brief hesitation, Vice President John Tyler took the position that he was President and not merely Acting President upon taking the Presidential Oath of Office. This precedent was followed thereafter, and was clarified by section one of the 25th Amendment. The 25th amendment specifies that "In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President." However, it does not specify whether officers other than the Vice President can become President rather than Acting President in the same set of circumstances.

See also: Acting President of the United States.

History of succession law set by Congress

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 was the first succession law passed by Congress. The act was contentious because of conflict between the Federalists and Republicans. The Federalists did not want the Secretary of State to appear next on the list after the Vice President because Thomas Jefferson was then Secretary of State and had emerged as a Republican leader. There were also concerns about including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court since that would go against the separation of powers. The compromise that was worked out established the President pro tempore of the Senate was next in line of succession 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 persons 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.

This remained in effect until 1886 when Congress replaced the President pro tempore and Speaker with officers of the President's Cabinet with the Secretary of State falling 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, shuffling the order of the line of succession seemed reasonable.

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 is the sequence used today.

By tradition, the order of Cabinet members is based on the order in which their respective departments were established. However, when the United States Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002, its Secretary was not placed last in accordance with this tradition. Many in Congress wanted the Secretary to be placed at number eight on the list (below the Attorney General and above the Secretary of the Interior) 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. Legislation to add the Secretary of Homeland Security to the list in this position is still pending in Congress.

No historical successions beyond Vice President

Vice President Gerald Ford is sworn in as the 38th President of the United States following the resignation of Richard Nixon
Vice President Gerald Ford is sworn in as the 38th President of the United States following the resignation of Richard Nixon

While nine Vice Presidents have succeeded to the office upon the death or resignation of the President, no lower officer has ever been called upon to act as President. In 1868 Senate President pro tempore Benjamin Wade nearly became President when Andrew Johnson came extremely close to being removed while there was no Vice President (as the office was vacant following Johnson's succession of Abraham Lincoln as President). Another close call came in 1973 during the Watergate crisis, when House Speaker Carl Albert was first in line during the two months late in the year in which Richard Nixon had no Vice President and was widely expected to resign. Albert was also first in line during the first four months of Gerald Ford's presidency.

Albert questioned whether it was appropriate for him, a Democrat, to assume the nation's highest office when there was a public mandate for the Presidency to be held by the opposing party. Albert decided he had no right to a White House that the American people had entrusted to a Republican. He announced that should he need to assume the presidency, he would do so only in an acting capacity, and would resign immediately after Congress appointed a Republican Vice President. Though the scenario never panned out, Albert established an important precedent.

In 1981, after President Reagan was shot — at a time when Vice President Bush was traveling in Texas — Secretary of State Alexander Haig responded to a reporter's question regarding who was running the government by stating that he was "in charge" at the White House. This claim was quickly denounced by many, because according to the line of succession listed above, Haig was still two positions away from legally assuming "control". However, it has also been pointed out that much of the controversy was the result of Haig being in conflict with the White House Chief of Staff. It is possible that Haig only intended to express that he was personally overseeing executive matters at the White House pending the Vice President's return.

Condoleezza Rice's confirmation as Secretary of State in January 2005 marked the third time an African-American woman had been among the people in the line of succession. (The first African-American woman to enter the line of succession, at 13th in line, was Patricia Roberts Harris when she became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1977; the second, at 11th in line, was Alexis Herman, Secretary of Labor from 1997 to 2001.)

Constitutional concerns

Several constitutional law experts, such as Akhil Reed Amar, 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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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", which must be a member of the Executive or Judicial Branch. The Speaker and the President pro tem 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. In order for the Speaker or the President pro tem to become President, they must resign their position, at which point they are no longer in the line of succession.

In 2003 the Continuity of Government Commission suggested that the current law has "at least seven significant issues... that warrant attention", including:

  1. 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 terrorist or biological attack, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that everyone on the list would be killed or incapacitated.
  2. Doubt (such as those expressed above in Constitutional Questions Regarding Eligibility to Act) that Congressional leaders are, in fact, eligible to act as President.
  3. A specific question of the ability of a President pro tempore to act, as the "largely honorific post is 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 the 98 year-old Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
  4. A concern that Congressional leaders from the same political party as the President should be in the line of succession should the opposition party hold a majority in either house of Congress.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 himself at any time.
  7. 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, but killed the Vice President).

Theories regarding exhaustion of the list

Though the statutory list of Presidential succession has only 17 officials, there are conspiracy theories about the existence of a much longer, secret list that lists hundreds of politicians, statesmen and officials, including all governors and senators. Though it is possible a longer list could have been devised as a part of the Continuity of Operations Plan in the anticipation of nuclear war, such a list would be unlikely to have any legal or constitutional standing. To avoid such an unprecedented situation, the government specifically makes sure that there are no occurrences in which the president and all of the potential successors are present in the same place. For gatherings like the State of the Union Address, one eligible cabinet member is randomly selected and is hidden in an undisclosed location. Thus, if for whatever reason catastrophe struck the Capitol, there would still be a person—the designated survivor—to assume the presidency.

There are no explicit provisions for what would happen if everyone on the list were dead, unable to serve, or otherwise ineligible to assume the Presidency. The possibility of such an unlikely occurrence was entertained after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Deputy secretaries would not be eligible, as the line of succession only applies to full Cabinet members. In the event of the death of their superior, deputy secretaries only assume the responsibilities as "acting secretary" — positions that are not counted in the line of presidential succession. It appears, however, that if Congress were still able to convene then the House could elect a new Speaker or the Senate could elect a new President pro tempore who would then immediately become President.

This scenario often occurs at the state level, which lack extensive succession lists to determine who becomes governor in the case of multiple resignations or deaths. However, at the federal level this procedure has the problem that it may be extremely time consuming in case of national emergency, and may not be possible if Congress is unable to meet, as could be the case after a massive terrorist attack. This possibility has caused some discussion on constitutional or legal remedies, although no formal action has been taken.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one Representative and one Senator of each political party have served as designated survivors concurrently with the Cabinet member so designated; so they can succeed to the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives or President Pro Tempore of the Senate (the offices that are respectively first and second in the line of succession to the presidency after the Vice President).

See also

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