United States presidential line of succession

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Federal judge Sarah T. Hughes administering the Oath of Office to President Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963.
Chief Justice Warren Burger administering the Oath of Office to President Gerald Ford following the resignation of Richard Nixon, August 9, 1974.

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. Presidency succession is referred to multiple times in the U.S. Constitution – Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, as well as the 12th Amendment, 20th Amendment, and 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.

Current order

The table below details the current presidential order of succession as established by the 1947 presidential succession statute as amended (3 U.S.C. § 19).[1] The order is determined by the offices. However, the individual in an office must still satisfy the constitutional requirements for the office in order to serve as Acting President. In the table, the absence of a number in the first column indicates that the incumbent is ineligible, or is of uncertain eligibility.[2] In such cases, a note explains the detail.

No. Office Current officer Party
1
Vice President Mike Pence Republican
2
Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan Republican
3
President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch Republican
4
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Republican
5
Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin Republican
6
Secretary of Defense[A] Jim Mattis Independent
7
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Republican
8
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke Republican
9
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Republican
10
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Republican
11
Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta Republican
12
Secretary of Health and Human Services[B] Alex Azar Republican
13
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson Republican
[C]
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao Republican
14
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry Republican
15
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Republican
16
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie Republican
17
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen Independent


Constitutional provisions

Presidential eligibility

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; and be a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years.[6][D]

A person who meets the above qualifications, however, would still be constitutionally disqualified from holding the office of president under any of the following conditions:

  • Under the 22nd 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.[7][8]
  • 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.[9]
  • Under Section 3 of the 14th 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.[10]

Presidential succession

The presidential line of succession is mentioned at four 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.[11]
  • The 12th Amendment includes a statement clarifying that, just as they would due to the president's death or disability, the powers and duties of the presidency devolve to the vice president if—following a presidential election where no candidate won an absolute majority of votes in the Electoral College—the House of Representatives has been unable to elect a president by the scheduled beginning of the president's term.[12]
  • The 20th Amendment, Section 3, supersedes the above 12th Amendment provision, by declaring 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, and also 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.[13]
  • The 25th Amendment, Section 1, clarifies Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, by 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.[E] Previously, whenever a vice president had succeeded to the presidency or had died or resigned from office, the vice presidency remained vacant until the next presidential and vice presidential terms began; there were 16 such vacancies prior to 1967.[15]

Succession acts

Act of 1792

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 (Full text Wikisource has information on "Presidential Succession Act 1792" ) provided for succession to the presidency, in the event both the office of the President and the Vice President were vacant, by, first, the president pro tempore of the Senate, followed by, if need be, the speaker of the House.[16] Various framers of the Constitution, such as James Madison, criticized the arrangement as being contrary to their intent. The decision to build the line of succession around those two officials was made after a long and contentious debate. In addition to the president pro tempore and the speaker, both the secretary of state and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were also suggested. Including the secretary of state was unacceptable to most Federalists, who did not want the then secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who had become the leader of the opposition Democratic-Republicans, to follow the vice president in the succession, and many objected to including the chief justice due to separation of powers concerns.[11][17]

The statute provided that the presidential successor would serve in an acting capacity, holding office only until a new president could be elected.[18] A special election was 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; no such election ever took place.

Act of 1886

The Presidential Succession Act of 1886 (Full text Wikisource has information on "Presidential Succession Act 1886" ) established a line of succession that included the members of the president's cabinet, the order of the establishment of the various departments, beginning with the Secretary of State,[F] and stipulated that any official discharging the powers and duties of the presidency must possess the constitutional qualifications to hold the office.[18] The president pro tempore and speaker were excluded from the new line; also dropped was the provision mandating a special presidential election when a double vacancy arose.

The need for increasing the number of presidential successors was abundantly clear to Congress, for twice within the span of four years it happened that there was no one in the presidential line of succession. In September 1881, When Chester A. Arthur succeeded to the presidency following James A. Garfield's death, there was no vice President, no president pro tempore of the Senate, and no Speaker of the House of Representatives.[12] Then, in November 1885, Grover Cleveland faced a similar situation, following the death of Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks, as the Senate and the House had not convened yet to elect new officers.[19]

Act of 1947

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (Full text Wikisource has information on "Presidential Succession Act 1947" ) restored the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate to the line of succession—but in reverse-order from their 1792 positions—and placed them ahead of the members of the Cabinet, who were positioned once more in the order of the establishment of their department.[5][G] Placing the speaker and the president pro tempore (both elected officials) back in the succession and placing them ahead of cabinet members (all of whom are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate), was Harry S. Truman's idea. Personally conveyed to Congress in June 1945, two months after becoming president upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the proposal reflected Truman's belief that the president should not have the power to appoint to office "the person who would be my immediate successor in the event of my own death or inability to act," and that the presidency should, whenever possible, "be filled by an elective officer."[18][20]

The Act, which the president signed into law on July 18, 1947,[18] has been modified several times, with changes being made as the face of the federal bureaucracy has changed over the ensuing years. Its most recent change came about in 2006, when the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act added the secretary of Homeland Security to the presidential line of succession.[1][H]

Ambiguities regarding succession and inability

In April 1841, John Tyler became the first person to succeed to the presidency intra-term upon the death of William Henry Harrison.

Although the 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 the 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.[11] Some historians, including Edward Corwin and John D. Feerick,[22] 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 a new president could be elected.[23]

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.[24]

Many around him—including John Quincy Adams,[22][25] Henry Clay[26] and other members of Congress,[25][26] along with Whig party leaders,[26] and even Tyler's own cabinet[25][26]—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.[24] Nonetheless, Tyler adhered to his position, even returning, unopened, mail addressed to the "Acting President of the United States" sent by his detractors.[27] Tyler's view ultimately prevailed when the Senate voted to accept the title "President,"[26] setting a momentous precedent for an orderly transfer of presidential power following a president's death,[24] one that was written into the Constitution as section 1 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment.[23]

Even after the precedent regarding presidential succession due to the president's death was set, the part of the Presidential Succession Clause that provided for replacing a disabled president remained unclear. What constituted an "inability"? Who determined the existence of an inability? Did a vice president become president for the rest of the presidential term in the case of an inability; or was the vice president merely "acting as President"? Due to this lack of clarity, later vice presidents were hesitant to assert any role in cases of presidential inability.[28] Two situations are noteworthy:

  • On July 2, 1881, James Garfield was shot; hit from behind by two bullets (one grazing his arm and the other lodging in his back).[29] The president wavered between life and death for 80 days after the shooting; it was the first time that the nation as a whole experienced the uncertainties associated with a prolonged period of presidential inability.[12] Most disconcerting, especially for Garfield administration personnel and members of Congress, was the lack of constitutional guidance on how to handle the situation. No one was sure who, if anyone, should exercise presidential authority while the president was disabled; many urged Vice President Chester Arthur to step-up, but he declined, fearful of being labeled a usurper. Aware that he was in a delicate position and that his every action was placed under scrutiny, Arthur remained secluded in his New York City home for most of the summer. Members of the Garfield Cabinet conferred daily with the president's doctors, and kept the vice president informed of significant developments on the president's condition.[29]
  • In October 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Nearly blind and partially paralyzed, he spent the final 17 months of his presidency sequestered in the White House.[30] Vice President Thomas Marshall, the cabinet, and the nation were kept in the dark over the severity of the president's illness for several months. Marshall was pointedly afraid to ask about Wilson's health, or to preside over cabinet meetings, fearful that he would be accused of "longing for his place." Though members of both parties in Congress pledged to support him if he assert his claim to the presidency, Marshall declined to act, or to do anything that might seem ambitious or disloyal to Wilson.[31] At a time when the fight over joining the League of Nations was reaching a climax, and domestic issues such as strikes, unemployment, inflation and the threat of Communism were demanding action, the operations of the executive branch were once more hampered due to the fact that there was no constitutional basis for declaring that the president was unable to function.[32]

When Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in September 1955, he and Vice President Richard Nixon developed an informal plan authorizing Nixon to assume some administrative duties during Eisenhower's recovery. Although it did not have the force of law, the plan helped to reassure the nation. The agreement also contained a provision whereby Eisenhower could declare his own inability and, if unable to do so, empowered Nixon, with appropriate consultation, to make the decision.[28] Had it been invoked, Nixon would have served as acting president until the president issued a declaration of his recovery. Moved forward as consequence of President Kennedy's November 1963 assassination, this informal plan evolved into constitutional procedure a decade later through Sections 3 and 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which resolved the uncertainties surrounding presidential disability.[15]

Presidential succession by vice presidents

Nine vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency intra-term, eight due to the president's death, and one due to the president's resignation from office.[1][12]

Successor[33] Party[33] Date and reason for succession[33][34]
John Tyler Whig April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison died 31 days into his presidency.[35]
Millard Fillmore Whig July 9, 1850, Zachary Taylor died 1 year, 4 months and 5 days into his presidency.[36]
Andrew Johnson Republican April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died 4 years, 1 month and 11 days into his presidency.[37]
Chester A. Arthur Republican September 19, 1881, James A. Garfield died 6 months and 15 days into his presidency.[38]
Theodore Roosevelt Republican September 14, 1901, William McKinley died 4 years, 6 months and 10 days into his presidency.[39]
Calvin Coolidge Republican August 2, 1923, Warren G. Harding died 2 years, 4 months and 29 days into his presidency.[40]
Harry S. Truman Democratic April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died 12 years, 1 month and 8 days into his presidency.[41]
Lyndon B. Johnson Democratic November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy died 2 years, 10 months and 2 days into his presidency.[42]
Gerald Ford Republican August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from office 5 years, 6 months and 20 days into his presidency.[43]

Additionally, two vice presidents have temporarily assumed the powers and duties of the presidency as acting president, as authorized by Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment: George H. W. Bush did so once, on July 13, 1985, and Dick Cheney did so twice, on June 29, 2002, and on July 21, 2007.[44]

Presidential succession beyond the vice president

While several vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency upon the death or resignation of the president, and a number of them have died or resigned, the offices of President and Vice President have never been simultaneously vacant;[I] thus no other officer in the presidential line of succession has ever been called upon to act as president. The prospect of such a double vacancy lurked in the shadows surrounding President Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination, as Vice President Andrew Johnson (along with Secretary of State William Seward and possibly General Ulysses S. Grant) was also targeted as part of John Wilkes Booth's plot to destabilize the Union government. It was also there three years later, when, as president and with the vice presidency vacant, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives and faced removal from office if convicted at trial in the Senate. Johnson was acquitted by a one-vote margin.[2][47]

Ratification of the 25th Amendment, with its mechanism for filling an intra-term vice presidential vacancy, has made calling on the speaker, president pro tempore, or a cabinet member to serve as acting president unlikely to happen, except in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.[14] Only a few years after it went into effect, in October 1973, at the height of Watergate, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. With Agnew's unexpected departure, and the state of Richard Nixon's presidency, Speaker of the House Carl Albert was suddenly first in line to become acting president. The vacancy continued until Gerald Ford was sworn in as vice president on December 6, 1973.[48] Albert was also next in line from the time Ford assumed the presidency on August 9, 1974, following Nixon's resignation from office, until Ford's choice to succeed him as vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, was confirmed by Congress four months later.[12]

Next in line

The vice presidency has been vacant on 18 occasions since 1789;[34] during those periods, the following people have been next in line to serve as Acting President of the United States:

Under the 1792 succession act

No. Official Office Party Dates Reason President
1 William H. Crawford[49] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic-
Republican
April 20, 1812 –
March 4, 1813
Death of Vice President George Clinton Madison
2 Langdon Cheves[50] Speaker of the House Democratic-
Republican
November 23, 1814 –
November 25, 1814
Death of Vice President Elbridge Gerry; vacancy in office of President pro tempore of the Senate Madison
John Gaillard[50] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic-
Republican
November 25, 1814 –
March 4, 1817
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
3 Hugh Lawson White[50] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
December 28, 1832 –
March 4, 1833
Resignation of Vice President John C. Calhoun Jackson
4 Samuel L. Southard[51] President pro tempore of the Senate Whig
April 4, 1841 –
May 31, 1842
Death of President William Henry Harrison and accession of Vice President John Tyler to the presidency Tyler
Willie Person Mangum[51] President pro tempore of the Senate Whig
May 31, 1842 –
March 4, 1845
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
5
Vacant[52]
July 9, 1850 –
July 11, 1850
Death of President Zachary Taylor and accession of Vice President Millard Fillmore to the presidency; vacancy in office of President pro tempore of the Senate; and ineligibility of Speaker of the House Howell Cobb who was not yet 35 years old Fillmore
William R. King[53] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
July 11, 1850 –
December 20, 1852
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
David Rice Atchison[54] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
December 20, 1852 –
March 4, 1853
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
6 David Rice Atchison[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
April 18, 1853 –
December 4, 1854
Death of Vice President William R. King Pierce
Lewis Cass[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
December 4, 1854 –
December 5, 1854
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
Jesse D. Bright[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
December 5, 1854 –
June 9, 1856
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
Charles E. Stuart[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
June 9, 1856 –
June 10, 1856
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
Jesse D. Bright[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
June 11, 1856 –
January 6, 1857
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
James Murray Mason[52] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
January 6, 1857 –
March 4, 1857
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
7 Lafayette S. Foster[55] President pro tempore of the Senate Republican
April 15, 1865 –
March 2, 1867
Death of President Abraham Lincoln and accession of Vice President Andrew Johnson to the presidency A. Johnson
Benjamin Wade[55] President pro tempore of the Senate Republican
March 2, 1867 –
March 4, 1869
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
8 Thomas W. Ferry[56] President pro tempore of the Senate Republican
November 22, 1875 –
March 4, 1877
Death of Vice President Henry Wilson Grant
9
Vacant[57]
September 19, 1881 –
October 10, 1881
Death of President James A. Garfield and accession of Vice President Chester A. Arthur to the presidency; vacancy in offices of President pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House Arthur
Thomas F. Bayard[58] President pro tempore of the Senate Democratic
October 10, 1881 –
October 13, 1881
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
David Davis[58] President pro tempore of the Senate Independent
October 13, 1881 –
March 3, 1883
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
George F. Edmunds[58] President pro tempore of the Senate Republican
March 3, 1883 –
March 3, 1885
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
10
Vacant[57]
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
John Sherman[57] President pro tempore of the Senate Republican
December 7, 1885 –
January 19, 1886
Elected President pro tempore of the Senate; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States

Under the 1886 succession act

No. Official Office Party Dates Reason President
10 Thomas F. Bayard[25] Secretary of State Democratic
January 19, 1886 –
March 4, 1889
Succession Act of 1886 is enacted; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States Cleveland
11 John Hay[59] Secretary of State Republican
November 21, 1899 –
March 4, 1901
Death of Vice President Garret Hobart McKinley
12 John Hay[59] Secretary of State Republican
September 14, 1901 –
March 4, 1905
Death of President William McKinley and accession of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency T. Roosevelt
13 Philander C. Knox Secretary of State Republican
October 30, 1912 –
March 4, 1913
Death of Vice President James S. Sherman Taft
14 Charles Evans Hughes Secretary of State Republican
August 2, 1923 –
March 4, 1925
Death of President Warren G. Harding and accession of Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the presidency Coolidge
15 Edward Stettinius Jr.[60] Secretary of State Democratic
April 12, 1945 –
June 27, 1945
Death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and accession of Vice President Harry S. Truman to the presidency Truman
Henry Morgenthau Jr.[60] Secretary of the Treasury Democratic
June 27, 1945 –
July 3, 1945
Resignation of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr.; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
James F. Byrnes[60] Secretary of State Democratic
July 3, 1945 –
January 21, 1947
Confirmed as Secretary of State; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
George Marshall[59] Secretary of State Democratic
January 21, 1947 –
July 18, 1947
Confirmed as Secretary of State; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States

Under the 1947 succession act

No. Official Office Party Dates Reason President
15 Joseph William Martin Jr.[59] Speaker of the House Republican
July 18, 1947 –
January 3, 1949
Succession Act of 1947 is enacted; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States Truman
Sam Rayburn[61] Speaker of the House Democratic
January 3, 1949 –
January 20, 1949
Elected Speaker of the House; continuing vacancy in the office of Vice President of the United States
16 John W. McCormack[62] Speaker of the House Democratic
November 22, 1963 –
January 20, 1965
Death of President John F. Kennedy and accession of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency L. Johnson
17 Carl Albert[48] Speaker of the House Democratic
October 10, 1973 –
December 6, 1973
Resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew Nixon
18 Carl Albert[12] Speaker of the House Democratic
August 9, 1974 –
December 19, 1974
Resignation of President Richard Nixon and accession of Vice President Gerald Ford to the presidency Ford

Contemporary issues and concerns

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

  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 nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, it is possible that everyone on the list would be killed or incapacitated.
  2. Doubt that congressional leaders are eligible to act as president.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  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 themselves 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 and killed the vice president).[63]

In 2009, the Continuity of Government Commission commented on the use of the term "Officer" in the 1947 statute,

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.)[64]

In 2016-17, the Second Fordham University School of Law Clinic on Presidential Succession developed a series of proposals to "resolve succession issues that have received little attention from scholars and commissions" over the past several decades. The clinic's recommendations included:

  • Remove legislators and several Cabinet members from the line of succession and adding four officials, or "Standing Successors," outside of Washington, D.C. The line of succession would be: 1st–Secretary of State, 2nd–Secretary of Defense, 3rd–Attorney General, 4th–Secretary of Homeland Security, 5th–Secretary of the Treasury, 6th–Standing Successor 1, 7th–Standing Successor 2, 8th–Standing Successor 3, and 9th–Standing Successor 4;
  • If legislators are not removed from the line of succession, only designate them as successors in cases where the President dies or resigns not where he is disabled (to protect legislators from being forced to resign to act as President temporarily) or removed from office;
  • Eliminate the "bumping provision" in the Succession Act of 1947;
  • Clarify the ambiguity in the Succession Act of 1947 as to whether acting Cabinet secretaries are in the line of succession;
  • That the outgoing President nominate and the Senate confirm some of the incoming President's Cabinet secretaries prior to Inauguration Day, which is a particular point of vulnerability for the line of succession;
  • Establish statutory procedures for declaring 1–a dual inability of the President and the Vice President, including where there is no Vice President and 2–a sole inability of the Vice President.[2]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ The Department of Defense is the successor to the earlier Department of War.[3]
  2. ^ The Department of Health and Human Services is the successor to the earlier Department of Health, Education and Welfare.[4]
  3. ^ Not eligible to become Acting President—not a natural-born U.S. citizen (citizenship acquired through naturalization).[5]
  4. ^ The final sentence of the 12th Amendment explicitly states that the constitutional qualifications for holding the presidency also apply to being vice president.[7]
  5. ^ This section 2 of the 25th Amendment has been invoked twice: 1973—Gerald Ford was nominated and confirmed to office following Spiro Agnew's resignation. 1974—Nelson Rockefeller was nominated and confirmed to office after Gerald Ford became president upon Richard Nixon's resignation.[14]
  6. ^ Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Attorney-General, Postmaster-General, Secretary of the Navy, and Secretary of the Interior.
  7. ^ Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor.
  8. ^ 1947—substituted Secretary of Defense for Secretary of War and struck out Secretary of the Navy. 1965—added Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and also Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 1966—added Secretary of Transportation. 1970—removed Postmaster General. 1977—added Secretary of Energy. 1979—substituted Secretary of Health and Human Services for Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and added Secretary of Education. 1988—Secretary of Veterans Affairs. 2006—Secretary of Homeland Security.[21]
  9. ^ Various friends and colleagues of Senator David Rice Atchison asserted that both offices were vacant on March 4–5 1849, because the terms of President Zachary Taylor and Vice President Millard Fillmore began on March 4, but neither took their oath of office on that day – following precedent as the day fell on a Sunday. The inauguration was held the next day, Monday, March 5.[45] Consequently, they considered David Rice Atchison, by virtue of being the last President pro tempore of the Senate in the out-going Congress, to have been Acting President of the United States during the day-long Interregnum (in accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792). Historians, constitutional scholars and biographers all dismiss the claim. Atchison did not take the presidential oath of office either, and his term as president pro tempore had expired on March 4.[46]

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