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United States Presidential line of succession

The Presidential line of succession defines who may become or act as President of the United States, upon the death, resignation, or removal from office (by impeachment and subsequent conviction) of a sitting President. The line of succession is mentioned in two places in the Constitution; in Article 2, Section 1 and the 25th Amendment.

Article 2, Section 1 provided that the Vice President was first in the line of succession and also provided that if neither the President nor Vice President can serve, the Congress shall provide law stating who is next in line. Currently that law exists as 3 USC 19, a section of the U.S. Code. The current succession law was established as part of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, reiterates what is stated in Article 2, 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 if he or she become mentally unstable. It also required Vice Presidential vacancies to be filled by the President. Previously, when a Vice President had ascended to the Presidency or otherwise left the office empty (through death, resignation, or removal from office), the Vice Presidency remained vacated.

Table of contents
1 "Acting President" versus "President"
2 History of succession law set by Congress
3 No historical successions beyond Vice President
4 Current line of succession
5 Theories regarding exhaustion of the list
6 External links

"Acting President" versus "President"

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

Article 2, Section 1 provided 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 left open the question whether "the same" refers to "the said office" or only "the powers and duties of the said office". There is evidence that the Framers' intention was that the Vice President would remain Vice President while executing the powers and duties of 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.

US Code 3 USC 19 does further clarify that officers other than the Vice President may only act as President.

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 Anti-Federalists. The Federalists did not want the Secretary of State to appear next on the list after the Vice President because Thomas Jefferson was the current Vice President and had emerged as an Anti-Federalist 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.

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 no 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. The order of Cabinet members was chosen for the order in which their respective departments were established.

When the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002, it was placed last in the list, in accordance with tradition. However, legislation was soon written to move the Secretary up to number eight on the list 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. The legislation is currently pending passage 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.

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 President Andrew Johnson came extremely close to being impeached while there was no Vice President (as the office was vacant following his succession of Abraham Lincoln as President). Another close call came in the 1970s during the Watergate crisis, when House Speaker Carl Albert was second in line during the period in which Richard Nixon had no Vice President and was widely expected to resign.

In 1981 Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig boldly proclaimed that he was "in charge" of the White House, after President Reagan was shot and Vice President Bush was traveling in Texas. This claim was quickly denounced by many, as according to the line of successon below, Haig was still two positions away from legally obtaining "control." However, it has also been pointed out that much of the controversy was the result of Haig being in conflict with the Presidential Chief of Staff.

Current line of succession

Here is the Presidential line of succession, as specified by 3 USC 19 (and the current officer holder):

  1. Vice President (Richard B. Cheney)
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dennis Hastert)
  3. President pro tempore of the Senate (Ted Stevens)
  4. Secretary of State (Colin Powell)
  5. Secretary of the Treasury (John W. Snow)
  6. Secretary of Defense (Donald H. Rumsfeld)
  7. Attorney General (John Ashcroft)
  8. Secretary of the Interior (Gale Norton)
  9. Secretary of Agriculture (Ann M. Veneman)
  10. Secretary of Commerce (Donald L. Evans)
  11. Secretary of Labor (Elaine L. Chao, ineligible)
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Tommy G. Thompson)
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (vacant)
  14. Secretary of Transportation (Norman Yoshio Mineta)
  15. Secretary of Energy (Spencer Abraham)
  16. Secretary of Education (Roderick Paige)
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Anthony J. Principi)
  18. Secretary of Homeland Security (Tom Ridge)

It should be noted that an official cannot succeed to the Presidency without meeting the Constitutional requirements. Of the above candidates, Secretary Elaine Chao is constitutionally ineligible to assume the Presidency, as she is not a natural born citizen. 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 eligible (the same Constitutional question also exists for the residency and age requirements). To avoid a needless Constitutional dispute at what would be a time of great crisis, the statute, at 3 USC 19(e), specifies that even the acting President must meet the Constitutional requirements for the office of President.

Theories regarding exhaustion of the list

Though the statutory list of Presidential succession only has 18 candidates, there are conspiracy theories about the existence of a much longer, secret list that lists hundreds of politicians. 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.

External links