Presidential Succession

The U.S. Constitution and Federal law govern how a dead or incapacitated President of the United States is succeeded in office. Surprisingly, the system took more than 150 years to evolve, and unresolved issues remain.

Below, a 
graphical format
 describes the Presidential line of succession at various times.

1787 -- The Constitutional Convention

The question of Presidential disability arose during the creation of the Consitution, even before the Founding Fathers had invented the idea of a Vice President. John Dickinson of Delaware asked the question that still haunts those concerned with the Presidency: "What is the extent of the term 'disability' & who is to be the judge of it?"
1787 -- Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution

Provides only that the Vice President succeeds the President. This section of the Constitution was superseded by the 25th Amendment in 1967.

PresidentVice President
1791 -- The First Congress
Near the end of the First Congress, in January 1791, a House committee recommended that succession after the Vice President fall to the cabinet's senior member, the Secretary of State. Federalist members quickly objected because they had no desire to see Thomas Jefferson, the incumbent Secretary of State and leader of the growing Anti-federalist opposition, placed so close to the presidency. Others proposed the Senate's president pro tempore, reasoning that as this official succeeded the vice president in presiding over the Senate, he should also succeed the vice president in performing the duties of the presidency. This plan attracted opposition from those who assumed the president pro tempore would remain a senator while temporarily performing duties of the presidency and feared the arrangement would upset the balance of powers between the two branches. Others suggested the Chief Justice or the House Speaker. At an impasse, the First Congress adjourned, deferring the matter nine months until the Second Congress, and thereby risking governmental paralysis in the event of presidential and vice-presidential vacancies.

PresidentVice President
1792 -- The Second Congress
Early in that new Congress, on February 20, 1792, the Senate passed the Presidential Succession Act, placing in line of succession its president pro tempore, followed by the House Speaker.

PresidentVice President President Pro Tempore of the SenateSpeaker of the House

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Senate assumed it was empowered to elect a president pro tempore only during the absence of a vice president. But what should senators do at the end of a session? Since Congress was customarily out of session for half of each year, what would happen in that era of high mortality rates if both the president and vice president died during the adjournment period and there were no designated president pro tempore? For decades, the Senate relied upon an elaborate charade in which the vice president would voluntarily leave the chamber before the end of a session to enable the Senate to elect a president pro tempore. Fearing that the presidency might thus accidentally slip into the hands of the opposition, vice presidents occasionally refused to perform this little courtesy when the opposing party held the Senate majority.

1886 --- The First Presidential Succession Act
In 1886 Congress replaced the two congressional officials in the line of succession with cabinet officers, in the order of their agencies' creation. Proponents of this change argued that the Senate elected its presidents pro tempore based on parliamentary rather than executive skills. No president pro tempore had ever served as president, while six former secretaries of state had been elected to that office.

PresidentVice President Secretary of StateSecretary of the TreasurySecretary of War Other cabinet secretaries...
1947 --- The Presidential Succession Act of 1947
When the 1945 death of FDR made Vice President Truman president, Truman urged placing the Speaker of the House next in line to the vice president. His reasoning: the Speaker is as an elected representative of his district, as well as the chosen leader of the "elected representatives of the people."

Of course, one could make the same argument for the president pro tempore of the Senate. Truman's decision may have reflected his strained relations with 78-year-old President Pro Tempore Kenneth McKellar and his warm friendship with 65-year-old House Speaker Sam Rayburn. After all, it was in Rayburn's hideaway office, where he had gone for a late afternoon glass of bourbon, that Truman first learned of his own elevation to the presidency.

PresidentVice President Speaker of the HousePresident Pro Tempore of the Senate Secretary of StateSecretary of the TreasurySecretary of War Other cabinet secretaries...
1967 --- The 25th Amendment to the Constitution
The 25th amendment to the Constitution is important because it speaks more to how the President is succeeded in office, rather than who succeeds to the office. For example, it establishes procedures by which the Vice President and the Cabinet can remove the President when they judge him to be incapacitated.

It also allows the President, when temporarily incapacitated, to temporarily surrender his powers to the Vice President. This provision has been used by President Bush.

One interesting note about the 25th amendment: It finally codified the tradition started by President tyler, In 1840, President William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. Tyler was his Vice President and assumed the Presidency. However, Article II of the Constitution says only that the duties of a deceased President fall to the Vice President. It does not say that the Vice President becomes President. Some people in 1840 felt Tyler should be "Acting President" or some other position less than "full" President. Tyler disagreed, and governed as President in all respects. This became a tradition followed by the other 7 Vice Presidents who succeeded to the Presidency over the next 125 years. It was not until 1967 that tradition became law in section 1 of the 25th amendment.

Today --- The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (Amended)
Cabinet officers have been in the line for presidential succession since 1886. So, whenever the structure of the Cabinet changes, the Presidential Succession Act must be amended to reflect the changes. Since the law was first enacted in 1947, for example, the Secretary of War has been replaced by the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy and the Postmaster General have been removed from the Cabinet, and six new Cabinet departments have been added. The current law preserves the tradition of ranking the Cabinet departments by the year they were founded.

The line of succession is currently:

  1. Vice President
  2. Speaker of the House
  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  4. Secretary of State
  5. Secretary of the Treasury
  6. Secretary of Defense
  7. Attorney General
  8. Secretary of the Interior
  9. Secretary of Agriculture
  10. Secretary of Commerce
  11. Secretary of Labor
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  14. Secretary of Transportation
  15. Secretary of Energy
  16. Secretary of Education
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Tomorrow --- House Resolution 2319
Introduced into the 108th Congress in June 2003, H.R. 2319 (PDF version) would make several changes to Presidential succession: One of the scenarios the bill is trying to address is:
A terrorist attack wipes out the seat of government. The president, vice president, representatives and senators are all dead - except for a group of six freshmen House members who were in the Congo on a humanitarian mission.

Under current law, these six lawmakers could return to Washington, select one of them as the new House speaker and that person could become the acting president instead of the Secretary of State who would otherwise be next in line.

[Source: Orange County Register, June 6, 2003, as reprinted on a web page of Congressman Christopher Cox's website.]

The bill is making its way through committees. You can view its current status here.
Tomorrow --- H.R. 1943 and S.920
These bills were introduced in the 109th Congress (2005-2006). Their provisions included adding the following positions to the end of the current line-of-succession: Note that Ambassadorial posts, like Cabinet posts, require confirmation by the Senate.

Great Britain, Russia, China, and France were the first countries to acquire nuclear weapons after the United States. So would Israel would be next on the list?

Secret Succession
In a startling revelation, journalist Jane Mayer 1a has reported what would seem to be an illegal change in Presidential succession, dating from the Cold War:
In a secret executive order, President Reagan, who was deeply concerned about the Soviet threat, amended the process for speed and clarity. The secret order established a means of re-creating the executive branch without informing Congress that it had been sidestepped, or asking for legislation that would have made the new "continuity-of-government" plan legally legitimate.
How could such an order be legal? Article 2 section 2 of the Constitution says the President...
... shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
Thus, only Congress can alter the current methods by which "officers of the United States" are appointed and confirmed. The Senate is unlikely to yield such control. For example, according to current methods, even an appointment to the miltitary rank of lieutenant colonel, of which there are more than 25,000 serving today, still requires confirmation by the Senate, even in the National Guard.

Editorial: Although "continuity of government" plans encompass some of the most sensitive secrets in the United States, it is lunacy to keep secret the algorithm by which Presidential succession is determined. If a crisis were to strike, so severe as to decapitate the government beyond the 17 people formally in line for the Presidency, and if some person were to emerge from the dust and rubble to proclaim himself or herself President according to a secret order of which the population was unaware, why would anyone believe such a pronouncment? What would prevent a second or third person from making a similar pronouncement? A secret algorithm for succession would add chaos to chaos in such a situation, and would quite likely put effective governmental power in the hands of generals and admirals who would decide whom to obey -- if anyone. It is also worth noting that the military's simple, public, and eminently practical rank structure is the equivalent of a succession algorithm. So why should the civilian succession be secret when military succession is not?

Question for readers: I once read an apocalyptic novel, now forgotten, which referred to a Presidential succession list having hundreds of names on it. The list supposedly reached down into the ranks of minor government officials. If such a list exists, it's not clear to me that it has any legal standing.

Further Reading, suggested by the U.S. Senate:
Cited Sources
  1. Mayer, Jane. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
    a  p.2