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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 of America, upon the death, resignation, or
removal from office (by impeachment and subsequent conviction) of a current
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 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.
"Acting President" versus "President"
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
No historical successions beyond Vice President
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 the 1970s, House Speaker Carl Albert came close during
the Watergate crisis, and 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 (Mel Martinez) (ineligible)
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,
Secretaries Elaine Chao and Mel Martinez are constitutionally 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
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.