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Order of Presidential Succession

Updated May 28, 2020 | Logan Chamberlain

It has only happened four times in history, but if the president of the United States is killed or incapable of fulfilling their duties, the country needs a backup plan. Without one there would be no continuity of government, and it's possible that we wouldn't have a legal way of resolving the problem. Enter the order of presidential succession. If there is a presidential vacancy, someone else in government assumes the duties of the presidency and the U.S. government carries on. 

Currently, the order is:

The Vice President
Speaker of the House
President pro tempore of the Senate
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

For the Trump Administration, that means the next in line are Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley in that order.

The Early Days

It's common nowadays to talk about polarization, but people fighting across party lines is far from new. In the earliest days of the presidency, there was no system in place for passing the position on past the Vice President. Article II of the Constitution specifically states that Congress has the power to decide what such officer will gain the presidency. 

There was a lot of debate over the subject. The framers of the Constitution (especially future President James Madison) argued relentlessly about how succession related to their idea of the presidency, and the Federalists didn't want any possibility of their rival Thomas Jefferson becoming president. People on all sides quibbled about letting the chief justice of the supreme court become president, as it could erode the separation of the executive branch and the judicial branch. 

According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the  Senate president pro tempore was next in line after the vice president to become acting president, followed by the Speaker of the House. If the vice president moved up, he would hold the position until the next presidential election. If both the president and VP died, then there would be a special presidential election to replace them the next year.

Shuffling the rankings

In 1886, however, Congress changed the order of presidential succession, replacing the president pro tempore and the Speaker with the cabinet officers. Proponents of this change argued that the congressional leaders lacked the experience to run the White House. At the time, only one of the members of congress in the order of succession had gone on to serve as president, while six former secretaries of state had later been elected to that office. To this day, James K. Polk is the only speaker to ever become president. We have never had a president pro tempore in the White House.

But, cabinet members aren't democratically elected, which can be a problem. The order was changed again into a mix of the two ideas. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947, signed by President Harry Truman, changed the order again to what it is today. The cabinet members are ordered in the line of succession according to the date their offices were established.

Fixing oversights

One of the biggest oversights had to do with when exactly someone becomes president. The 20th amendment, passed in 1933, is generally about when a president-elect becomes president. It set the date for January 20th every year following a presidential election. The amendment also specifies that if a president-elect dies before becoming president, the VP candidate becomes the new president-elect. 

Prior to the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, there was no provision for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency. When a president died in office, the vice president succeeded him, and the vice presidency then remained vacant. This became a pressing issue when then-VP Spiro Agnew resigned his post. Per the amendment, the president would nominate a new VP to be confirmed by the house. The first vice president to take office under the new procedure was Gerald Ford, who was nominated by Nixon on Oct. 12, 1973, and confirmed by Congress the following Dec. 6. Gerald Ford assumed the presidency when Nixon resigned, and he in turn nominated his own VP. This led to the unique situation of having two people in the White House who were elected by the U.S. government rather than by voters. 

The 25th Amendment also provides for the vice president and the government to remove the president from their position if they are considered unable to perform their duties. After the JFK assassination, there was concerns about a president being too ill or injured to function, but still being alive and retaining their powers. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, an example would be if the president or VP contracted Covid-19 and had to be intubated, which can result in long-term mental impairments. In that case, there would be a legal means of transferring the duties of the presidency. 

NOTE: An official cannot succeed to the Presidency unless that person meets the Constitutional requirements (born in the United States, lived here for at least 14 years, and over the age of 35). 

1. The president pro tempore presides over the Senate when the vice president is absent. The president pro tempore is elected by the Senate, but by tradition the position is held by the senior member of the majority party.

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