Presidential Succession: Perspectives, Contemporary Analysis, and 110th Congress Proposed Legislation
Perspectives, Contemporary Analysis, and
110 Congress Proposed Legislation
October 3, 2008
Thomas H. Neale
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Presidential Succession: Perspectives, Contemporary
Analysis, and 110th Congress Proposed Legislation
Presidential succession was widely considered to be a settled issue prior to the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These events demonstrated the potential to
disable both the legislative and executive branches of government, and raised the
question of whether current arrangements are adequate to guarantee continuity in
government under such circumstances. Members’ concerns may be heightened as the
110th Congress prepares not only for its successor, but a change of administration, as
well. Is the United States Government at greater risk of terrorist attack during this
period of transition? Are present arrangements adequate to ensure continuity in the
presidency in the event of a “worst-case” scenario? Some analysts and Members of
Congress advocate modifications to existing laws to eliminate gaps and enhance
procedures in the area of presidential succession.
Subsequent to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a range
of legislation relating to presidential succession has been introduced. To date, the
change has been incremental: on March 9, 2006, the President signed the USA
Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law (H.R. 3199,
Representative James Sensenbrenner, P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192). Title V, Section
503 of this act revised the order of presidential succession to incorporate the
Secretary of Homeland Security as 18th in the line, following the Secretary of
In the 110th Congress, Representative Brad Sherman has introduced H.R. 540,
which would: (1) expand the line of succession to include U.S. ambassadors to major
foreign nations ; (2) make technical revisions to existing succession provisions in the
U.S. Code; (3) declare the sense of Congress that the political parties should adopt
procedures for the replacement of presidential and vice presidential candidates who
die or are incapacitated before electoral votes are cast; and (4) declare the sense of
Congress that outgoing Presidents should cooperate with Presidents-elect to insure
that an incoming administration’s cabinet officers should be nominated, approved
and installed by inauguration. One other proposal, H.J.Res. 4, the Every Vote Counts
Amendment, introduced by Representative Gene Green, deals with presidential
succession within the broader context of electoral college reform.
This report will be updated as events warrant.
In troduction ......................................................1
Perspective: Presidential Succession in the Constitution and Federal Law,
Original Intent: Presidential Succession at the Constitutional
The Succession Act of 1792.................................2
Presidential Succession in 1841: Setting a Precedent..............3
The Succession Act of 1886.................................3th
The 20 Amendment (1933).................................4
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947........................4th
The 25 Amendment (1967) and Current Procedures..............5
Contemporary Analysis: Presidential Succession in the Post-9/11 Era.........6
Succession Issues — Constitutional...............................7
Do the Speaker and the President Pro Tempore Qualify as “Officers”
for the Purposes of Presidential Succession?.................7
Succession Issues — Political and Administrative....................9
Democratic Principle and Party Continuity......................9
Efficient Conduct of the Presidency..........................10
“Bumping” or Supplantation................................11
Succession During Presidential Campaigns and Transitions............13
Between Nomination and Election...........................13
Between the Election and the Meeting of the Electors............13
Between the Electoral College Vote and the Electoral Vote Count
Between the Electoral Vote Count and Inauguration..............15
110th Congress: Proposed Legislation.................................15
H.R. 540, the Presidential Succession Act of 2007...................15
Expanding the Line of Succession — Section 2 (a)(1)............16
Eliminating Supplantation or “Bumping” — Section 2(a)(2)(B)....16
Allowing Cabinet Officers to Serve as acting President Without
Vacating Their Prior Appointment — Section (2)(a)(3)(A)....17
Various Subsections — Conforming Amendments to
Change Nomenclature: Establishing the Position of Acting
President in Law.....................................18
Succession Procedures for Presidential Candidates — Section 3....18
Guaranteeing Cabinet Continuity During Presidential
Transitions — Section 4...............................19
H.J.Res. 4 — The Every Vote Counts Amendment...................21
Other Options for Change..........................................22
Appendix: Presidential and Vice Presidential Successions ................25
List of Tables
Table 1. Presidential Successions by Vice Presidents....................25th
Table 2. Vice Presidential Successions Under the 25 Amendment.........26
Table 3. The Order of Presidential Succession
(under the Succession Act of 1947)...............................27
Presidential Succession: Perspectives,
Contemporary Analysis, and 110 Congress
While the Constitution, as amended by the 25th Amendment, provides that the
Vice President will succeed to the nation’s highest office on the death, resignation,
or removal from office of the President, it delegates authority for succession beyond
the Vice President to Congress. Over the past two centuries, Congress has exercised
its authority in three succession acts, in 1792, 1886, and 1947. It has also added to,
revised, and clarified the succession process through Sections 3 and 4 of the 20th
Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1932 and ratified by the states in 1933, and
the 25th Amendment, proposed in 1965 and ratified in 1967. The Succession Act of
1947, as amended, and the two constitutional amendments currently govern
succession to the presidency.
Presidential succession was widely considered a settled issue prior to the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These events demonstrated the potential for
a mass “decapitation” of both the legislative and executive branches of government,
and raised questions as to whether current arrangements were adequate to guarantee
continuity in Congress and the presidency under such circumstances. With respect
to presidential succession, there has been a wide range of discussions in both
Congress and the public policy community since that time, and Members of both
chambers have introduced legislation addressing this question in the contemporary
Although the question of presidential succession has been considered both on
Capitol Hill and in the public policy community, Congress has yet to consider a
major revision of presidential succession procedures. In its most recent action, the
109th Congress incorporated the office of Secretary of Homeland Security into the
line of succession in Title V of the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization
Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192).
This report provides analytical perspective on presidential succession questions
in U.S. history, identifies and assesses contemporary succession issues, and identifies
and analyzes relevant legislation offered in the 110th Congress. For additional
information on continuity issues and planning, please consult: CRS Report RL31594,
Congressional Continuity of Operations (COOP): An Overview of Concepts and
Challenges, by R. Eric Petersen and Jeffrey W. Seifert; CRS Report RL31857,
Executive Branch Continuity of Operations (COOP): An Overview, by R. Eric
Petersen; and CRS Report RL32752, Continuity of Operations in the Executive
Branch: Issues in the 109th Congress, by R. Eric Petersen.
Perspective: Presidential Succession in the
Constitution and Federal Law, 1787-1967
Original Intent: Presidential Succession at the Constitutional
Convention. Article II of the Constitution, as originally adopted, provided the most
basic building block of succession procedures, stating 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, and the Congress may by Law provide for the
Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice
President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer
shall act accordingly until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be1
This language evolved during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The two most
important early drafts of the Constitution neither provided for a Vice President nor
considered succession to the presidency, and it was only late in the convention
proceedings that the office of Vice President emerged and the language quoted above2
was adopted. While the need for a Vice President was debated during the
ratification process, the question of succession received little attention, meriting only
one reference in the supporting Federalist papers: “the Vice-President may
occasionally become a substitute for the President, in the supreme Executive3
m agi st racy.”
The Succession Act of 1792. The Second Congress (1791-1793) exercised
its constitutional authority to provide for presidential vacancy or inability in the
Succession Act of 1792 (1 Stat. 240). After examining several options, including
designating the Secretary of State or Chief Justice as successor, Congress settled on
the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of
Representatives, in that order. These officials were to succeed if the presidency and
vice presidency were both vacant. During House debate on the bill, there was
considerable discussion of the question of whether the President Pro Tempore and
the Speaker could be considered “officers” in the sense intended by the Constitution.
If so, they were eligible to succeed, if not, they could not be included in the line of
succession. The House expressed its institutional doubts when it voted to strike this
provision, but the Senate insisted on it, and it became part of the bill enacted and
1 U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 1, clause 6. This text was later changed and clarified
by Section 1 of the 25th Amendment.
2 John D. Feerick, From Failing Hands: The Story of Presidential Succession (New York:
Fordham University Press, 1965), pp. 42-43.
3 Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 68,” in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and
John Jay, The Federalist, Benjamin F. Wright, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 433.
signed by the President.4 Although the Speaker and President Pro Tempore were thus
incorporated in the line of succession, they would serve only temporarily, however,
since the act also provided for a special election to fill the vacancy, unless it occurred
late in the last full year of the incumbent’s term of office.5 Finally, this and both later
succession acts required that designees meet the constitutional requirements of age,
residence, and natural born citizenship.
Presidential Succession in 1841: Setting a Precedent. The first
succession of a Vice President occurred when President William Henry Harrison died
in 1841. Vice President John Tyler’s succession set an important precedent and
settled a constitutional question. Debate at the Constitutional Convention, and
subsequent writing on succession, indicated that the founders intended the Vice
President to serve as acting President in the event of a presidential vacancy or
disability, assuming “the powers and duties” of the office, but not actually becoming6
President. Tyler’s status was widely debated at the time, but the Vice President
decided to take the presidential oath, and considered himself to have succeeded to
Harrison’s office, as well as to his powers and duties. After some discussion of the
question, Congress implicitly ratified Tyler’s decision by referring to him as “the7
President of the United States.” This action set a precedent for succession that
subsequently prevailed, and was later formally incorporated into the Constitution byth
Section 1 of the 25 Amendment.
The Succession Act of 1886. President James A. Garfield’s death led to
a major change in succession law. Shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, the President
struggled to survive for 79 days before succumbing to his wound on September 19.
Vice President Chester A. Arthur took office the same day without incident, but the
offices of Speaker and President Pro Tempore were vacant throughout the President’s
illness, due to the fact that the House elected in 1880 had yet to convene, and the
Senate had been unable to elect a President Pro Tempore because of partisan strife.8
Congress subsequently passed the Succession Act of 1886 (24 Stat. 1) in order to
insure the line of succession and guarantee that potential successors would be of the
same party as the deceased incumbent. This legislation transferred succession after
the Vice President from the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker to cabinet
officers in the chronological order in which their departments were created, provided
4 Feerick, From Failing Hands, pp. 58-60.
5 It should be recalled that during this period presidential terms ended on March 4 of the
year after the presidential election. Also, the act provided only for election of the President,th
since electors cast two votes for President during this period (prior to ratification of the 12
Amendment, which specified separate electoral votes for President and Vice President), with
the electoral vote runner-up elected Vice President.
6 Ruth Silva, Presidential Succession (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (c. 1951)), p. 10;
Feerick, From Failing Hands, p. 56.
7 Congressional Globe, vol. 10, May 31, June 1, 1841, pp. 3-5.
8 In accord with contemporary practice, the House of Representatives elected in November,
the Senate had convened on March 10, but primarily to consider President Garfield’s cabinet
and other nominations.
they had been duly confirmed by the Senate and were not under impeachment by the
House. Further, it eliminated the requirement for a special election, thus ensuring
that any future successor would serve the full balance of the presidential term. This
act governed succession until 1947.
The 20th Amendment (1933). Section 3 of the 20th Amendment, ratified in
1933, clarified one detail of presidential succession procedure by declaring that, if a
President-elect dies before being inaugurated, the Vice President-elect becomes
President-elect and is subsequently inaugurated.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947. In April, 1945, Vice President
Harry S. Truman succeeded as President on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In
June of that year, he proposed that Congress revise the order of succession, placing
the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in line behind
the Vice President and ahead of the Cabinet.9 The incumbent would serve until a
special election, scheduled for the next intervening congressional election, filled the
presidency and vice presidency for the balance of the term. Truman argued that it
was more appropriate to have popularly elected officials first in line to succeed,
rather than appointed cabinet officers. A bill10 incorporating the President’s proposal,
minus the special election provision, passed the House in 1945, but no action was
taken in the Senate during the balance of the 79th Congress.
The President renewed his call for legislation when the 80th Congress convened
in 1947, and legislation11 was introduced in the Senate the same year. Debate on the
Senate bill centered on familiar questions: whether the Speaker and President Pro
Tempore were “officers” in the sense intended by the Constitution; whether
legislators were well-qualified for the chief executive’s position; whether requiring
these two to resign their congressional membership and offices before assuming the
acting presidency was in the nation’s best interest.12 After spirited debate, the Senate
passed the measure on June 27, 1947, while House action followed on July 10. The
bill as passed embodied Truman’s request, but again deleted the special election
provisions. The President signed it into law on July 18.
Under the act (61 Stat. 380, 3 U.S.C.§19), if both the presidency and vice
presidency are vacant, the Speaker succeeds (after resigning the speakership and his
House seat).13 If there is no Speaker, or if that person does not qualify, the President
Pro Tempore succeeds, under the same requirements. If there is neither a Speaker
nor President Pro Tempore, or if neither qualifies, then cabinet officers succeed,
9 “Special Message to the Congress on the Succession to the Presidency,” June 19, 1945,
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Harry S. Truman, 1945 (Washington:
GPO, 1961), pp. 128-131.
10 H.R. 3587, 79th Congress.
11 S. 564, 80th Congress.
12 Feerick, From Failing Hands, pp. 207-208.
13 This requirement was included because the Constitution (Article I, Section 6, clause 2)
expressly states that “... no person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a
Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.”
under the same conditions as applied in the 1886 act (see Table 3 for departmental
order in the line of succession). Any cabinet officer acting as President under the act
may, however, be supplanted by a “qualified and prior-entitled individual” at any
time.14 This means that if a cabinet officer is serving due to lack of qualification,
disability, or vacancy in the office of Speaker or President Pro Tempore, and, further,
if a properly qualified Speaker or President Pro Tempore is elected, then they may
assume the acting presidency, supplanting the cabinet officer. The Presidential
Succession Act of 1947 has been regularly amended to incorporate new cabinet-level
departments into the line of succession, and remains currently in force.
One anomaly remedied in the 109th Congress was the fact that the position of
Secretary of Homeland Security was not included in the line of presidential
succession when the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135)
established the Department of Homeland Security in November 2002. Freestandingthth
legislation to remedy this omission was introduced in the 108 and 109 Congresses,
but no action was taken on these bills.15 Instead, the 109th Congress updated the
order of succession when it incorporated the office of Secretary of Homeland
Security into the line of succession as a provision of Title V of the USA Patriot
Authorization and Improvement Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192).
The 25th Amendment (1967) and Current Procedures. The 1963
assassination of President John F. Kennedy helped set events in motion that
culminated in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, a key element in current
succession procedures. Although Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded
without incident after Kennedy’s death, it was noted at the time that Johnson’s
potential immediate successor, House Speaker John W. McCormack, was 71 years
old, and Senate President Pro Tempore Carl T. Hayden was 86 and visibly frail. In
addition, many observers believed that a vice presidential vacancy for any length of
time constituted a dangerous gap in the nation’s leadership during the Cold War, an
era of international tensions and the threat of nuclear war.16 It was widely argued that
there should be a qualified Vice President ready to succeed to the presidency at all
times. The 25th Amendment, providing for vice presidential vacancies and
presidential disability, was proposed by the 89th Congress in 1965 and approved by
the requisite number of states in 1967.17
The 25th Amendment is the cornerstone of contemporary succession procedures.
Section 1 of the amendment formalized traditional practice by declaring that, “the
Vice President shall become President [emphasis added]” if the President is removed
14 3 U.S.C. 19 (d)(2).
15 Freestanding succession legislation introduced in the 109th Congress is discussed later in
this report. For 108th Congress proposals, see CRS Report RL31761, Presidentialth
Succession, an Overview with Analysis of Legislation Proposed in the 108 Congress, by
Thomas H. Neale.
16 Following President Kennedy’s death, the vice presidency remained vacant for 14 months,
until Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was sworn in on January 20, 1965.
17 For additional information on presidential tenure, see CRS Report RS20827, Presidential
and Vice Presidential Terms and Tenure, by Thomas H. Neale.
from office, dies, or resigns. Section 2 empowered the President to nominate a Vice
President whenever that office is vacant. This nomination must be approved by a
simple majority of Members present and voting in both houses of Congress. Sections
Any Vice President who succeeds to the presidency serves the remainder of the
term. Constitutional eligibility to serve additional terms is governed by the 22nd
Amendment, which provides term limits for the presidency. Under the amendment,
if the Vice President succeeds after more than two full years of the term have
expired, he is eligible to be elected to two additional terms as President. If, however,
the Vice President succeeds after fewer than two full years of the term have expired,
the constitutional eligibility is limited to election to one additional term.
Section 2 of the 25th Amendment has been invoked twice since its ratification:
in 1973, when Representative Gerald R. Ford was nominated and approved to
succeed Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who had resigned, and again in 1974, when
the former Governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller, was nominated and
approved to succeed Ford, who had become President when President Richard M.
Nixon resigned (see Table 2). While the 25th Amendment did not supplant the order
of succession established by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, its provision
for filling vice presidential vacancies renders recourse to the Speaker, the President
Pro Tempore, and the cabinet unlikely, except in the event of an unprecedented
Presidential Succession in the Post-9/11 Era
The events of September 11, 2001 and the prospect of a “decapitation” of the
U.S. government by an act of mass terrorism have led to a reexamination of many
previously long-settled elements of presidential succession and continuity of19
government on the federal level. A number of proposals to revise the Succession
Act of 1947 have been introduced in the 108th through 110th Congresses. Some of
these were in the nature of “housekeeping” legislation; that is, they proposed to insert
the office of Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security into the line of
succession, as has been done in the past when new cabinet departments are created
by Congress. Others proposed more complex changes in the legislation.
This growth of concern over succession issues in the wake of 9/11 was further
reflected in the fact that the Senate Committees on Rules and Administration and the
Judiciary held a joint informational hearing on September 16, 2003, and the House
Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution conducted a hearing on the
18 For additional information on presidential disability, see CRS Report RS20260,
Presidential Disability: An Overview, by Thomas H. Neale.
19 For additional information on continuity of government issues, see CRS Report RS21089,
Continuity of Government: Current Federal Arrangements and the Future, by Harold C.
succession question on October 6, 2004. On both occasions, witnesses offered a
wide range of viewpoints and various legislative and other options.
The question of continuity of government in the executive branch has also been
addressed by a non-governmental organization, the Continuity of Government
Commission, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute of Washington, D.C.
For additional information on the commission and its activities, consult:
[ http://www.continuityofgovernment.org/ home.html] .
Succession Issues — Constitutional
Several issues dominate current discussions over revising the order of
presidential succession. Some are “hardy perennials,” constitutional questions that
have risen in every debate on succession law, and have been cited earlier in this
report. Others reflect more recent concerns.
Do the Speaker and the President Pro Tempore Qualify as
“Officers” for the Purposes of Presidential Succession? There is no
question as to Congress’s constitutional ability to provide for presidential succession.th
This power is directly granted by Article II, Section 1, clause 6, modified by the 25
Amendment, as noted earlier in this report. What is in question here is what the
Constitution means by the word “Officer.” The interpretation of this phrase, and, by
extension, whether the Speaker and President pro-tempore are constitutionally
eligible to succeed the President has been perhaps the most durable element in the
succession debate over time. Are they “officers” in the sense as noted in Article II,
or are their positions as officers of the Congress, established in Article I, Sections 2
and 3, so fundamentally different that they are ineligible to succeed. The succession
acts of both 1792 and 1947 assumed that the language was sufficiently broad as to
include officers of Congress, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the
Speaker of the House of Representatives (the 1792 act specified this order of
succession; the 1947 act reversed the order, placing the Speaker of the House first in
line, followed by the President Pro Tempore).
Some observers assert that these two congressional officials are not officers in
the sense intended by the Constitution, and that the 1792 act was, and the 1947 act
is, constitutionally questionable. Attorney Miller Baker explained this hypothesis in
his testimony before hearings held jointly by the Senate Committees on the Judiciary
Committee and on Rules and Administration in 2003:
The Constitution is emphatic that members of Congress are not “Officers of the
United States.” The Incompatibility Clause of Article I, Section 6, clause 2
provides that “no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a
Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.” In other words,
members of Congress by constitutional definition cannot be “Officers” of the20
20 W. Miller Baker, Testimony before the Senate Committees on the Judiciary and Rules and
Administration, September 16, 2003, p.8; available at [http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/
testimony.cfm?id=914&wit_id=2606]. Baker’s testimony cites additional supporting
This point was raised in congressional debate over both the Succession Act of 1792
and that of 1947. In the former case, opinion appears to have been divided: James
Madison (arguably the single most formative influence on the Constitution, and a
serving Representative when the 1792 act was debated) held that officers of Congress
were not eligible to succeed. Other Representatives who had also served as delegates
to the Constitutional Convention were convinced to the contrary.21 In addition,
political issues also contributed to the debate in 1792. Fordham University Law
School Dean and succession scholar John D. Feerick notes that the Federalist-
dominated Senate insisted on inclusion of the President Pro Tempore and the
Speaker. He cites contemporary sources that the Senate sought to exclude the
Secretary of State largely because the incumbent was Thomas Jefferson, who was
locked in a bitter dispute with Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist supporters.
Jefferson was the acknowledged leader of the Anti-Federalists, the group that later
emerged as the Jeffersonian Republican, or Democratic Republican, Party.22 It thus
may be inferred that the provisions of the Succession Act of 1792 may have been the
result of political machinations and personal animosities.
Questions as to the constitutional legitimacy of the Speaker and the President
Pro Tempore as potential successors to the President and Vice President recurred
during debate on the 1947 succession act. At that time, Feerick notes, long
acceptance of the 1792 act, passed by the Second Congress, which presumably had
first-hand knowledge of original intent in this question, was buttressed as an
argument by the Supreme Court’s decision in Lamar v. United States.23
Professor Howard Wasserman, of the Florida International University School
of Law, introduced another argument in support of the Speaker’s and President Pro
Tempore’s inclusion in the order of succession in his testimony before the 2003 joint
hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Rules and
The Succession Clause [of the Constitution] provides that “Congress may
by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both
of the President and the Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as
President and such Officer shall act accordingly.” ... This provision refers to
“officers,” unmodified by reference to any department or branch. Elsewhere, the
Constitution refers to “Officers of the United States” or “Officers under the
United States” or “civil officers” in contexts that limit the meaning of those
terms only to executive branch officers, such as cabinet secretaries.
arguments for his assertion at considerable length.
21 Feerick, From Failing Hands, p. 59.
22 Ibid., pp. 60-61.
23 241 U.S. 103 (1916). According to Feerick, “ ... the Supreme Court held that a member
of the House of Representatives was an officer of the government within the meaning of a
penal statute making it a crime for one to impersonate an officer of the government.”
Feerick, From Failing Hands, p. 206.
The issue is whether the unmodified “officer” of the Succession Clause has
a broader meaning. On one hand, it may be synonymous with the modified uses
of the word elsewhere, all referring solely to executive branch officials, in which
case the Speaker and the President Pro Tem cannot constitutionally remain in the
line of succession. On the other hand, the absence of a modifier in the
Succession Clause may not have been inadvertent. The unmodified term may be
broader and more comprehensive, covering not only executive-branch officers,
but everyone holding a position under the Constitution who might be labeled an
officer. This includes the Speaker and President Pro Tem, which are identified24
in Article I as officers of the House and Senate, respectively.
Given the diversity of opinion on this question, and the continuing relevance of
historical practice and debate, the issue of constitutional legitimacy remains an
important element of any congressional effort to amend or replace the Succession Act
Succession Issues — Political and Administrative
A second category of succession issues includes political questions and
Democratic Principle and Party Continuity. These two interrelated
issues collectively comprise what might be termed the political aspect of presidential
succession. Democratic principle was perhaps the dominant factor contributing to
the passage of the 1947 succession act. Simply stated, it is the assertion that
presidential and vice presidential succession should be settled first on popularly
elected officials, rather than the appointed members of the Cabinet, as was the case
under the 1886 act. According to Feerick, the 1886 act’s provisions aroused criticism
not long after Vice President Harry Truman became President on the death of25
Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Truman responded less than two months after
succeeding to the presidency, when he proposed to Congress the revisions to
succession procedures that, when amended, eventually were enacted as the
Succession Act of 1947. The President explained his reasoning in his special
message to Congress on the subject of succession to the presidency:
... by reason of the tragic death of the late President, it now lies within my power
to nominate the person who would be my immediate successor in the event of my
own death or inability to act. I do not believe that in a democracy this power
should rest with the Chief Executive. In so far as possible, the office of the
President should be filled by an elective officer. There is no officer in our
system of government, besides the President and Vice President, who has been
elected by all the voters of the country. The Speaker of the House of
Representatives, who is elected in his own district, is also elected to be the
presiding officer of the House by a vote of all the Representatives of all the
people of the country. As a result, I believe that the Speaker is the official in the
24 Howard M. Wasserman, Testimony before the Senate Committees on the Judiciary and
Rules and Administration, September 16, 2003, p. 7. Available at
[http://j udiciary.senate.gov/hearings /testimony.cfm?id=914&wit_id=2605].
25 Feerick, From Failing Hands, pp. 204-205.
Federal Government, whose selection next to that of the President and Vice26
President, can be most accurately said to stem from the people themselves.
Conversely, critics of this reasoning assert that the Speaker, while chosen by a
majority of his peers in the House, has won approval by the voters only in his own
congressional district. Further, although elected by the voters in his home state, the
President Pro Tempore of the Senate serves as such by virtue of being the longest-27
serving Senator of the majority party.
Against the case for democratic succession urged by President Truman, the
value of party continuity, best assured by having a cabinet officer in the first place of
succession, is asserted by some observers. The argument here is that a person acting
as President under these circumstances should be of the same political party as the
previous incumbent, in order to assure continuity of the political affiliation, and,
presumably, the policies of the candidate chosen by the voters in the last election.
According to this reasoning, succession by a Speaker or President Pro Tempore of
a different party would be a reversal of the people’s mandate that would be inherently
undemocratic. Moreover, they note, this possibility is not remote: since passage of
the Succession Act of 1947, the nation has experienced “divided government,” that
is, control of the presidency by one party and either or both houses of Congress by
another, for 36 of the 61 intervening years. As Yale University Professor Akhil
Amar noted in his testimony at the 2003 joint Senate committee hearing, “... [the
current succession provisions] can upend the results of a Presidential election. If28
Americans elect party A to the White House, why should we end up with party B?”
At the same hearing, another witness argued that, “This connection to the President
... provides a national base of legitimacy to a cabinet officer pressed to act as
President. The link between cabinet officers and the President preserves some
measure of the last presidential election, the most recent popular democratic
statement on the direction of the executive branch.”29
Efficient Conduct of the Presidency. Some observers also question the
potential effect on conduct of the presidency if the Speaker or President Pro Tempore
were to succeed to the office. Would these persons, whose duties and experience are
essentially legislative, have the skills necessary to serve as chief executive?
Moreover, it is noted that these offices have often been held by persons in late middle30
age, or even old age, whose health and energy levels might be limited. As Miller
26 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Harry S. Truman, 1945, p. 129.
27 The President Pro Tempore is elected by the whole Senate, but this office is customarily
filled only by the Senator of the majority party who has served longest; thus, the act of
election is arguably a formality.
28 Akhil Amar, Testimony before the Senate Committees on the Judiciary and Rules and
Administration, September 16, 2003, p. 2. Available at
[http://j udiciary.senate.gov/hearings /testimony.cfm?id=914&wit_id=2603].
29 Howard M. Wasserman, Testimony, p. 4.
30 Most often cited is the example of Speaker John McCormick and President Pro Tempore
Carl Hayden, who were first and second in line of presidential succession for 14 months
Baker noted in his testimony before the 2003 joint committee hearings, “... history
shows that senior cabinet officers such as the Secretary of State and the Secretary of
Defense are generally more likely to be better suited to the exercise of presidential
duties than legislative officers. The President pro tempore, traditionally the senior
member of the party in control of the Senate, may be particularly ill-suited to the
exercise of presidential duties due to reasons of health and age.”31 Conversely, it can
be noted that the Speaker, particularly, has extensive executive duties, both as
presiding officer of the House, and as de facto head of the extensive structure of
committees, staff, and enabling infrastructure that comprises the larger entity of the
House of Representatives. Moreover, it can be argued that the speakership has often
been held by men of widely recognized judgment and ability, e.g., Sam Rayburn,
Nicholas Longworth, Joseph Cannon, and Thomas Reed.
“Bumping” or Supplantation. This question centers on the 1947
Succession Act provision that officers acting as President under the act do so only
until the disability or failure to qualify of any officer higher in the order of succession
is removed. If the disability is removed, the previously entitled officer can supplant
(“bump”) the person then acting as President. For instance, assuming the death,
disability, or failure to qualify of the President, the Vice President, the Speaker, the
President Pro Tempore, or a senior cabinet secretary32 is acting as President.
Supplantion could take place under any one of several scenarios.
!Death of the President, Vice President, Speaker and President Pro
Tempore: the senior cabinet secretary is acting as President. The
House elects a new Speaker, who, upon meeting the requirements,
i.e., resigning as a House Member and as Speaker, then “bumps” the
cabinet secretary, and assumes the office of Acting President. If the
President Pro Tempore were serving as Acting President, he or she
could be similarly bumped by a newly-elected Speaker. Both
persons would be out of a job under this scenario: the President Pro
Tempore, by virtue of having resigned as Member and officer of
Congress in order to become Acting President,33 and the senior
cabinet secretary, by virtue of the fact that, under the act, “The
taking the oath of office ... [by a cabinet secretary] shall be held to
constitute his resignation from the office by virtue of the holding of
which he qualifies to act as President.”34
following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. Rep. McCormick was 71
at the time of the assassination, and Sen. Hayden was 86, and visibly frail.
31 Miller Baker, Testimony, p. 11.
32 “Senior cabinet secretary” or “officer” in this section refers to the secretary of the senior
executive department, under the Succession Act of 1947, as amended.
33 3 U.S.C. § 19(b).
34 3 U.S.C. § 19(d)(3).
!Disability of the President and Vice President: the Speaker is Acting
President. Either the President or Vice President could supplant
after recovering, but the Speaker, or the President Pro Tempore,
should that officer be acting, would be out of a job, due to the
requirements noted above.
!Failure to Qualify of the Speaker or President Pro Tempore: the
President and Vice President are disabled, or the offices are vacant.
The Speaker and the President Pro Tempore decline to resign their
congressional membership and offices, and the acting presidency
passes to the senior cabinet officer. At some point, the Speaker or
the President Pro Tempore decides to claim the acting presidency,
resigns, and “bumps” the serving cabinet secretary. The same
scenario could occur to a President Pro Tem supplanted by the
Should these or similar scenarios occur, critics assert that the supplantation
provisions could lead to dangerous instability in the presidency during a time of
national crisis. For example, one witness testified as follows:
Imagine a catastrophic attack kills the president, vice-president and congressional
leadership. The secretary of state assumes the duties of the presidency. But
whenever Congress elects a new Speaker or president pro tem, that new leader
may ‘bump’ the secretary of state. The result would be three presidents within35
a short span of time.
Moreover, as noted previously, any person who becomes acting President must resign
his previous position, in the case of the Speaker and President Pro Tempore, or have
his appointment vacated by the act of oath taking. It is certainly foreseeable that
public officials might hesitate to forfeit their offices and end their careers before
taking on the acting presidency, particularly if the prospect of supplantation loomed.
The “bumping” question has been used by critics of legislative succession as an
additional argument for removing the Speaker and President Pro Tempore from the
line of succession. Another suggested remedy would be to amend the Succession Act
of 1947 to eliminate the right of “prior entitled” individuals to supplant an acting
President who is acting due to a vacancy in the office of President and Vice
President. Relatedly, other proposals (see H.R. 540, 110th Congress, examined later
in this report) would amend the law to permit cabinet officials to take a leave of
absence from their departments while serving as acting President in cases of
presidential and vice presidential disability. They could thus return to their prior
duties on recovery of either the President and Vice President, and their services
would not be lost to the nation, nor would there be the need to nominate and confirm
35 Howard M. Wasserman, Testimony, p. 8.
Succession During Presidential Campaigns and Transitions
The related issue of succession during presidential campaigns and during the
transition period between elections and the inauguration has been the subject of
renewed interest since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The salient
elements of this issue come into play only during elections when an incumbent
President is retiring, or has been defeated, and the prospect of a transition between
administrations looms, but uncertainties about succession arrangements during such
a period have been cause for concern among some observers. Procedures governing
these eventualities depend on when a vacancy would occur.
Between Nomination and Election. This first contingency would occur
if there were a vacancy in a major party ticket before the presidential election. This
possibility has been traditionally covered by political party rules, with both the
Democrats and Republicans providing for replacement by their national36
committees. For example, in 1972, the Democratic Party filled a vacancy when
vice presidential nominee Senator Thomas Eagleton resigned at the end of July, and
the Democratic National Committee met on August 8 of that year to nominate R.
Sargent Shriver as the new vice presidential candidate. A more problematic example
of nominee replacement occurred following the death of Vice President James S.
Sherman on October 30, 1912, just days before the November 5 election. Sherman37
was both incumbent and Republican nominee for Vice President. The Republican
National Committee met after election day and appointed Nicholas M. Butler to
replace Sherman on the ticket, and the eight Republican electors duly cast their votes
Between the Election and the Meeting of the Electors. The second
contingency would occur in the event of a vacancy after the election, but before the
electors meet to cast their votes in December. This eventuality has been the subject
of speculation and debate. Some commentators suggest that the political parties
would follow their rules to provide for the filling of presidential and vice presidential
vacancies and designate a substitute nominee. It is assumed that the electors, who
are predominantly party loyalists, would vote unanimously for the substitute
nominee. Given the unprecedented nature of such a situation, however, confusion,
controversy, and a breakdown of party discipline among the members of the electoral
college might also arise, leading to further disarray in what would already have
become a problematical situation.39 For instance, an individual elector or group of
electors might justifiably argue that they were nominated and elected to vote for a
36 See Republican Party Rules (2004), Rule No. 9, available at [http://www.gop.com/
About/Rules6-10.htm]; The Charter and Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the U.S.,
February 3, 2007, Article Three, Section 1(c), available at
37 The incumbent President and Republican presidential nominee was William Howard Taft.
38 Michael Nelson, A Heartbeat Away, (New York, Priority Press: 1988: p. 58).
39 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution,
Presidential Succession Between the Popular Election and the Inauguration, hearing, 103rdnd
Cong., 2 sess., February 2, 1994 (Washington: GPO, 1995), pp. 12-13.
particular candidate, that the death or withdrawal of that candidate released them
from any prior obligation, and that they were henceforth free agents, able to vote for
any candidate they chose.
The historical record does not provide much guidance as to this situation.
Horace Greeley, the 1872 presidential nominee of the Democratic and Liberal
Republican Parties died on November 29, of that year, several weeks after the
November 5 election day. As it happened, 63 of the 66 Greeley electors voted for
other candidates, and Congress declined to count the three cast for Greeley on the
grounds that electoral votes for a dead person were invalid.40 Even so, the question
as to the validity of the Greeley electoral votes was of little concern, since the
“stalwart” or “regular” Republican nominee, Ulysses S. Grant, had won the election
in a landslide, gaining 286 electoral votes.
Between the Electoral College Vote and the Electoral Vote Count
by Congress. A third contingency would occur if there were a vacancy in a
presidential ticket during the period between the time when the electoral votes are
cast (Monday after the second Wednesday in December) and when Congress counts
and certifies the votes (January 6). The succession process for this contingency turns
on the issue of when candidates who have received a majority of the electoral votes
become President-elect and Vice President-elect. Some commentators doubt whether
an official President- and Vice President-elect exist prior to the electoral votes being
counted and announced by Congress on January 6, maintaining that this is a
problematic contingency lacking clear constitutional or statutory direction.41 Others
assert that once a majority of electoral votes has been cast for one ticket, then the
recipients of these votes become the President- and Vice President-elect,
notwithstanding the fact that the votes are not counted and certified until the
following January 6.42 If so, then the succession procedures of the 20th Amendment,
noted earlier in this report, would apply as soon as the electoral votes were cast;
namely, if the President-elect dies, then the Vice President-elect becomes the
President-elect. This point of view receives strong support from the language of the
House committee report accompanying the 20th Amendment. Addressing the
question of when there is a President-elect, the report states:
It will be noted that the committee uses the term “President elect” in its generally
accepted sense, as meaning the person who has received the majority of electoral
votes, or the person who has been chosen by the House of Representatives in the
event that the election is thrown into the House. It is immaterial whether or not
the votes have been counted, for the person becomes the President elect as soon43
as the votes are cast.
40 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Counting Electoral Votes. Proceedings and
Debates of Congress Relating to Counting the Electoral Votes for President and Vicethnd
President of the United States, 44 Cong. 2 sess., Misc. Doc. No. 13 (Washington: GPO,
41 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
42 Ibid., p. 12.
43 U.S. Congress, House, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,
Between the Electoral Vote Count and Inauguration. As noted
previously, the 20th Amendment covers succession in the case of the President-elect,
providing that in case of his death, the Vice President-elect becomes President-
elect.44 Further, a Vice President-elect succeeding under these circumstances and
subsequently inaugurated President would nominate a Vice President under
provisions of the 25th Amendment. A major concern that has risen about this period
since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, centers on the order of succession
under the Succession Act of 1947. What might happen in the event of a mass
terrorist attack during or shortly after the presidential inaugural? While there would
be a President, Vice President, Speaker, and President Pro Tempore during this
period, who would step forward in the event an attack removed these officials? This
question takes on additional importance since the Cabinet, an important element in
the order of succession, is generally in a state of transition at this time. The previous
administration’s officers have generally resigned, while the incoming
administration’s designees are usually in the midst of the confirmation process. It is
possible to envision a situation in which not a single cabinet officer will have been
confirmed by the Senate under these circumstances, thus raising the prospect of a de
facto decapitation of the executive branch, at least for the purposes of presidential
110th Congress: Proposed Legislation
After considerable activity in recent years, only two succession-related measures
have been introduced to date in the 110th Congress. One, H.R. 540, the Presidential
Succession Act of 2007, addresses several familiar issues in post-9/11 succession,
while the second, H.J.Res. 5, the Every Vote Counts Amendment, deals with
succession tangentially, within the context of presidential election reform.
H.R. 540, the Presidential Succession Act of 2007
This bill was introduced in the 110th Congress on January 17, 2007, by
Representative Brad Sherman. It has been referred to the Subcommittee on the
Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the House Committee on the
Judiciary. For the purposes of examination and analysis, H.R. 540 may be divided
into three segments. The first, Section 2(a)(1) of the bill (Section 1 states the short
title) would comprise a major revision of the order of presidential succession by
extending it to five additional officers. The second, Section 2(a)(2-4) and (2)(b)(1-4)
makes various technical changes and clarifications to the code, while also eliminating
“bumping,” and making it possible for cabinet secretaries to serve as acting President
without leaving their existing appointment. The final part, comprising Sections 3 and
report to accompany S.J.Res. 14, 72nd Cong., 1st sess., Rept. 345 (Washington, GPO: 1932),
44 Whether this provision would also cover disability or resignation is a question that merits
At the time of this writing, no action has been taken on H.R. 540 beyond committee
Expanding the Line of Succession — Section 2 (a)(1). This section
would set a new precedent in the established order of presidential succession,
extending it for the first time beyond the Vice President, congressional leadership and
the Cabinet. It would amend Title 3, Section 19 (d) of the United States Code, as
amended by the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (120
Stat. 247) by expanding the lineup of potential presidential successors to include the
U.S. ambassadors to the following five nations or organizations, in the following
!the United Nations;
!Great Britain (the United Kingdom);
!Russia (the Russian Federation);
These positions would be added to the end of the current order of succession,
and would expand the number of designated potential successors from 18 to 23,
beginning with the Vice President and ending with the U.S. Ambassador to France.
The intent here is to add high-ranking federal officers to the succession list who are
normally not physically present in the Washington area at any given time. Thus, in
the event of a worst case scenario, the mass “decapitation” of the U.S. Government’s
political leadership, there would almost certainly be an appropriate official available
to assume the acting presidency.
While some observers might note that any of the five ambassadors are very
unlikely to ever accede to the acting presidency, this provision does provide, they
may argue, a useful “fail safe” procedure. The ambassadors concept might not be
above criticism, however. Appointees to major embassies have not always been
drawn from the top ranks of the U.S. diplomatic corps. Some ambassadors,
particularly those appointed to posts in the United Kingdom and France, have
occasionally been major contributors to the incumbent President’s campaign, or
longtime friends and supporters who may have had limited experience in either
diplomacy or public service. On the other hand, the passage of this legislation might
confer a sense of the enhanced importance of these posts, which could itself assure
the appointment of highly qualified and experienced ambassadors to the relevant
Eliminating Supplantation or “Bumping” — Section 2(a)(2)(B). This
section would end the practice by which an acting President could be “bumped” or
supplanted by another officer higher on the order of succession, unless he or she was
serving due to the disability of the President or Vice President. This would eliminate
the uncertainties inherent under the current law. For example, under the provisions
of H.R. 540, a cabinet officer serving as acting President due to the death of the
President, Vice President, Speaker, and President Pro Tempore would not be
supplanted if the House of Representatives elected a new Speaker.45 The acting
President would continue to serve out the balance of the term. The bumping
phenomenon is examined in greater detail earlier in this report, under the heading
“‘Bumping’ or Supplantion.”
One element left unclear by the elimination of the bumping provision, and by
this legislation in general, is how it would relate to the 25th Amendment. Would an
acting President have the same authority as the President to nominate a Vice
President to fill the vacancy in that office?46 The 25th Amendment refers specifically
to “the President [who] shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon
confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress (emphasis added).” Is
this language sufficiently broad that it could be interpreted to confer the power to
nominate a Vice President on the acting President, as well? Moreover, what would
be the succession status of a newly confirmed Vice President be to the acting
President who appointed him or her? Would the new Vice President’s non-acting
status confer the ability to succeed an acting President? The proposed legislation is
silent on this question.
Allowing Cabinet Officers to Serve as acting President Without
Vacating Their Prior Appointment — Section (2)(a)(3)(A). Under current
law, a cabinet officer acting as President under the Succession Act of 1947
automatically loses his job upon assuming the acting presidency. The law is clear
and decisive on this matter: the cabinet officer does not need to tender his or her
resignation, because “[t]he taking of the oath of office ... shall be held to constitute
resignation of the office by virtue of the holding of which he qualifies to act as
P resi d ent . ”47
Section 2(a)(3)(A) of H.R. 540 would eliminate this requirement, substituting
the following language:
The taking of the oath of office by an individual specified in the list in paragraph
(1) of this subsection shall not require (emphasis added) his resignation from the
office by virtue of the holding of which he qualifies to serve as acting48
This change would eliminate one of the problematic elements in the existing
provisions of the Succession Act of 1947. As noted previously, the automatic
resignation requirement of the current language could arguably deter a distinguished
45 Alternatively, if the incumbent Speaker temporarily resigned as Speaker to avoid serving
as acting President, but then resumed the speakership, he or she would be able to “bump”
the acting President at a later time. This possibility or option could arguably cast a shadow
over the authority of the acting President. Eliminating bumping under these circumstances
is intended to reduce the potential for uncertainty and confusion as to the authority of the
acting President, as well as the possibility of “revolving door” acting Presidents.
46 Recall that there could be an acting President only if the presidency and vice presidency
were vacant due to the death or disability of the incumbents.
47 3 U.S.C. 19(d)(3).
48 3 U.S.C. 19(d)(3), as proposed to be amended by H.R. 540, 110th Congress.
and capable cabinet officer from accepting the acting presidency for a limited period
of time, if, by doing so, he or she would forfeit his appointment as secretary of one
of the executive departments. Under the proposed revision, the affected officer could
serve as acting President for however long a period required, and still have the option
of returning to the original position.
It should be noted, however, that while H.R. 540 would eliminate the automatic
resignation provision, it does not contain language that would specifically authorize
a cabinet officer serving as acting President to take a leave of absence from his or her
permanent position, nor does it provide any of the detailed procedures that such a
contingency might arguably require.
The section concludes by revising the language governing requirements for
cabinet officers serving as acting President. The changes do not, however, alter the
current requirements in Section 19. In order to serve as acting President, the cabinet
officer must be: (1) “eligible to the office of President under the Constitution,” (2)
must have been appointed to the office “by and with the advice and consent of the
Senate, (3) prior to the time the powers and duties of the President devolve to such
officer ... and ...(4) not [be] under impeachment by the House of Representatives at
the time the powers and duties of the office of the President devolve upon them.”
Various Subsections — Conforming Amendments to Change
Nomenclature: Establishing the Position of Acting President in Law.
A number of subsections scattered throughout the bill as conforming amendments
would change the title and actions of persons substituting for the President from the
formula currently found in the Title 3, Section 19 of the U.S. Code. The current law
refers to persons “acting as President,” or describes who shall “act as President,” or
who is “acting as President.” This formula would be changed to identify such
persons as “acting President,” or persons who “serve as acting President,” or are
“serving as acting President.” The purpose here is to establish the title of acting
President in law, clarify various references to the position, and arguably to confer
greater distinction on it.
Succession Procedures for Presidential Candidates — Section 3.
Sections 3 and 4 of H.R. 540 might be described as “aspirational” provisions, since
they would promote changes in existing political arrangements through non-
legislative means. Both sections would express the “sense of Congress” on
succession and continuity of government questions that are not currently covered in
the Constitution or the U.S. Code.
Section 3 would declare the sense of Congress with respect to succession
arrangements for presidential and vice presidential party nominees. It recommends
that the political parties (and, presumably, independent candidacy organizations)
adopt the following specific procedures:
!each party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees should
announce the names of replacement candidates for both offices at the
party’s national convention;
!in the event the presidential nominee is deceased or permanently
incapacitated prior to date on which presidential electors convene in
the states, the electors would instead vote for the vice presidential
nominee as President;
!in the event the vice presidential nominee is deceased or
permanently incapacitated under the aforementioned circumstances,
the electors would instead vote for the stand-by vice presidential
candidate designated by the nominees at the convention;
!in the event both candidates are deceased or permanently
incapacitated under the aforementioned circumstances, then the
electors would vote for the stand-by candidates for both offices
designated by the nominees at the convention; and
!the parties should establish new rules and procedures that would
incorporate the procedures recommended in the legislation.
The purpose of Section 3 is to eliminate the uncertainties that would surround
the death or permanent incapacity of a presidential or vice presidential nominee at
any time between the nomination and casting of electoral votes. These issues have
been discussed previously in this report under “Succession During Presidential
Campaigns and Transitions.” Although the political parties would not be compelled
to accept these recommendations, they (the recommendations) would carry
considerable weight as the expressed sense of Congress. It may be argued that their
apparent prudence and common sense might persuade the national committees of the
major parties to consider them seriously or to adopt them. In this sense, the section
might be considered as providing a template or “model legislation” for the parties.
Critics, however, might assert that such a “sense of Congress” recommendation
constitutes unprecedented government intervention in the internal governance of the
political parties. It could, they might argue, be used in the future to justify further
intrusions into the activities of the political parties and other non-governmental
organizations which have been historically regarded as private associations that
perform quasi-public functions, but have traditionally been subject to minimal
intrusion by the federal government.
Guaranteeing Cabinet Continuity During Presidential Transitions
— Section 4. This section also expresses the sense of Congress, in this case on
“the continuity of government and the smooth transition of executive power,” in a
series of findings. The findings would declare the sense of Congress that continuity
of leadership in the federal government should be assured during periods of
presidential transition and inauguration. They urge the incumbent president and
President-elect to “work together ... with the Senate to the extent determined
appropriate by the Senate, to ensure a smooth transition of executive power....” The
findings further cite the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 (3 U.S.C. 102), which
seeks to avoid disruption of the functions of the federal government during these
periods, and also note that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the
United States (the 9/11 Commission) made specific recommendations concerning
continuity of government during the transition from an outgoing presidential
administration to an incoming one, particularly with respect to national security
After stating these findings, the bill, if enacted, would express the sense of
Congress in the following specific recommendations:
!the incumbent president should “consider” submitting the President-
elect’s nominees for offices in the line of succession during the post-
election transition period;
!the Senate should consider completing the confirmation process,
conduct hearings, and vote on the nominees between January 3 and
Inauguration Day, January 20;
!the incumbent President should consider signing and delivering
“commissions for all approved nominations on January 20, before
the Inauguration, to ensure continuity of Government.”
The bill’s intention here is to address the contingency identified earlier in this
report: the awkward period around the inauguration when the outgoing Cabinet has
resigned, but the newly nominated cabinet officers have yet to be approved, and are
not yet eligible to succeed to the presidency.
Traditionally, Presidents-elect announce their cabinet choices during the
transition period that normally takes place between election day and January 20 of
the following year, when the newly-elected President actually assumes office. Also
during this period, the outgoing President’s cabinet officers traditionally submit their
resignations, generally effective on or before inauguration day. Although
investigations of and hearings on cabinet nominees for an incoming administration
are often under way before the transfer of power, official nominations by an
incoming President, and subsequent advice and consent by the Senate, cannot occur
until after the new President has assumed office. Frequently, this process continues
for some weeks, or longer in the case of controversial or contested nominations, so
that the full Cabinet may not be sworn until well after the inauguration.
Representative Sherman and other observers view this gap, particularly in the
confirmation and swearing-in of cabinet officers included in the line of succession,
as a threat to continuity in both the presidency and in executive branch management.
While the President-elect cannot submit his cabinet nominations until he assumes
office, there is no legal impediment to prevent the outgoing incumbent from
submitting any or all of his successor’s nominations to the Senate after it reconvenes
on January 3.
One advantage conferred by this proposal would center on the fact that cabinet
secretaries, unlike elected officials, do not serve set terms of office which expire on
a date certain. Further, the process recommended by H.R. 540 arguably offers the
additional advantage of being able to be implemented without legislation or a
constitutional amendment. If the level of interpersonal and bipartisan cooperation
envisaged in these bills could be attained, an incoming President might assume office
on January 20 with a full Cabinet, or at least key officers in the line of succession
(e.g., the Secretaries of State, the Treasury, Defense, and the Attorney General)
already sworn and installed, thus reducing the potential for disruption of the
executive branch by a terrorist attack.
In addition to the national security-related advantage this would confer, it
arguably could provide an impetus to streamlining the sometimes lengthy and
contentious transition and appointments process faced by all incoming
administrations. The speedy transfer of executive leadership is a well-documented
feature of most parliamentary democracies. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the
party out of power appoints a “shadow secretary” for every department. It is publicly
understood that the shadow secretary (or minister) will be appointed head of the
department if there is a change of party control of the government. Adoption of
advance cabinet planning would, however, be a major innovation in current U.S.
political practices; at least part of a candidate’s future Cabinet would need to be
selected and “vetted” if not publicly announced, prior to the presidential election.
A related alternative requiring no legislative action would be for cabinet
secretaries of the outgoing administration to retain their offices until the nominations
of their successors have been consented to by the Senate.
Both pre-inaugural nomination and confirmation of some or all cabinet
secretaries, and retention of incumbent secretaries pending Senate confirmation
would, however, face substantial obstacles, since success would be dependent on
high levels of good will and cooperation between incumbent Presidents and their
successors, and between the political parties in the Senate. Moreover, it would
impose a sizeable volume of confirmation-related business on both the lame duck
and newly-sworn Congresses during the 10 weeks following a presidential election.
During this period, the expiring Congress traditionally adjourns sine die, while the
new Congress generally performs only internal business and counts the electoral
votes between its own installation on January 3 and the presidential inauguration. If
the election, like the presidential contest of 2000, remained undecided for any length
of time after election day, this would introduce still further complicating factors.
H.J.Res. 4 — The Every Vote Counts Amendment
This measure, introduced on January 4, 2007 by Representative Gene Green,49
is a proposed constitutional amendment which has as its primary goal the
establishment of direct popular election of the President and Vice President.50
49 Representatives Brian Baird and William Delahunt are cosponsors.
50 For a detailed analysis of H.J.Res. 4 and more information on the question of electoral
college reform in the 110th Congress, consult CRS Report RL34604, Electoral Collegeth
Reform: 110 Congress Proposals, the National Popular Vote Campaign and Other
Alternative Developments, by Thomas H. Neale.
Section 5 of the resolution would empower Congress to provide by law “for the
case of the death of any candidate for President or Vice President” before election
day. This section would accomplish much the same goal as Section 3 of H.R. 540,
except that rather than express the sense of Congress as to the value of making such
arrangements, it would actually give Congress the power to enact statutory provisions
governing such contingencies.
Other Options for Change
Additional succession-related proposals, discussed by analysts, have been
offered that have not been introduced as current legislation. They seek particularly
to address post-9/11 concerns over the prospect of a “decapitation” of the U.S.
government by a terrorist attack or attacks, possibly involving the use of weapons of
One proposal, suggested by John C. Fortier51 at joint Senate committee hearings52
held in September, 2003, would have Congress establish a number of additional
federal officers whose specific duties and function would be to be ready to assume
the acting presidency if necessary. Fortier envisions that the President would appoint
them, subject to Senate confirmation, and that obvious candidates would be
governors, former presidents, vice presidents, cabinet officers, and Members of
Congress; in other words, private citizens who have had broad experience in
government. They would receive regular briefings, and would also serve as advisors
to the President. A further crucial element is that they would be located outside the
Washington, D.C. area, in order to be available in the event of a governmental
“decapitation.” Fortier further suggested that these officers should be included ahead53
of cabinet officers “lower in the line of succession.” Although he was not more
specific in his testimony, it could be argued that these officers might be inserted after
the “big four”, i.e., the Secretaries of State, the Treasury, and Defense and the
Another proposal by Dr. Fortier would amend the Succession Act to establish
a series of assistant vice presidents, nominated by the President, and subject to
approval by advice and consent of the Senate. These officers would be included in
the order of succession at an appropriate place. They would be classic “stand-by”
51 Dr. Fortier is executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission at the
American Enterprise Institute, a non-governmental study commission. For additional
information, please consult the commission website at
[ h t t p : / / www.c ont i nui t yof go ve r n me nt .or g/ ] .
52 Fortier suggests four or five officers.
53 John Fortier, Testimony before the Senate Committees on the Judiciary and Rules and
Administration, September 16, 2003, p. 7. Available at
[http://j udiciary.senate.gov/hearings /testimony.cfm?id=914&wit_id=2604].
personnel: their primary function would be to be informed, prepared, and physically
safe, ready to serve as acting President, should that be required.54
Miller Baker offered other proposals during his testimony at the September,
Under one, the President would be empowered to name an unspecified number of
state governors as potential successors. The constitutional mechanism here would
be the President’s ability to call state militias (the National Guard) into federal
service.55 Baker argues that, by virtue of their positions as commanders-in-chief of
their state contingents of the National Guard, governors could, in effect be
transformed into federal “officers” by the federalization of the Guard.56
Professor Akhil Amar offered a proposal similar to that of Dr. Fortier. He
suggested that a cabinet position of assistant vice president be established by law.
The assistant vice president would be nominated by the President and subject to
confirmation by the Senate. The primary duty of this officer would be to be prepared
to assume office as chief executive in the event of a succession catastrophe. In his
testimony before the September, 2003, joint Senate committee hearings, Dr. Amar
suggested that presidential candidates should announce their choices for this office
during the presidential campaign. This would presumably enhance the electoral
legitimacy of the assistant vice president, as voters would be fully aware of the
candidates’ choices for this potentially important office, and include this
consideration or factor in their voting decisions.57
A further variant was offered by Howard Wasserman during his joint Senate
committee hearing testimony. He suggested establishment of the cabinet office of
first secretary, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The first
secretary’s duties would be the same as those of the offices proposed above, with
special emphasis on full inclusion and participation in administration policies, “This
officer must be in contact with the President and the administration, as an active
member of the Cabinet, aware of and involved in the creation and execution of public
Finally, Dr. Fortier proposed a constitutional amendment that would eliminate
the requirement that successors be officers of the United States, empowering the
President to nominate potential successors beyond the Cabinet, subject to advice and
consent by the Senate. Such an amendment, he argues, would “... eliminate any
54 John Fortier, Testimony, p. 13.
55 U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, clause 1.
56 Miller Baker, Testimony, p. 10. Baker also urged the removal of the Speaker of the House
and the President pro tempore from the line of succession, in favor of cabinet officers. He
also proposed that these officers be able to serve temporarily as acting President. For
instance, if the Secretary of State were outside the United States in the event of a succession
catastrophe, the Secretary of the Treasury could serve as acting President until the Secretary
of State returned and assumed those duties.
57 Akhil Amar, Testimony, p. 2-3.
58 Howard Wasserman, Testimony, p. 6.
doubts about placing state governors in the line of succession, and could provide for
succession to the Presidency itself (as opposed to the acting Presidency).”59 Fortier
envisions that these persons would be “eminently qualified” to serve. As examples,
he suggested that President George W. Bush might nominate, “... former President
George H.W. Bush and former Vice President Dan Quayle, both of whom no longer
live in Washington, to serve in the line of succession. Similarly, a future Democratic
President might nominate former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Walter Mondale to
serve in the statutory line of succession.”60
Seemingly a long-settled legislative and constitutional question, the issue of
presidential and vice presidential succession in the United States gained a degree of
urgency following the events of September 11, 2001. Old issues have been revisited,
and new questions have been asked in light of concerns over a potentially disastrous
“decapitation” of the U.S. Government as the result of a terrorist attack, possibly by
use of weapons of mass destruction.
Although a number of wide-ranging reforms have been proposed in successive
Congresses since then, the only legislative action taken to date occurred when theth
109 Congress acted to insert the office of Secretary of Homeland Security into the
current line of succession — remedying an oversight in the legislation that created
the department in 2002 — in Title V of the USA Patriot Improvement and
Reauthorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192).
The joint hearings conducted in the 108th Congress by the Senate Committees
on the Judiciary and Rules and Administration in September 2003 and by the House
Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution in October 2004
established a basis for prospective measures, should future Congresses choose to
revisit the succession issue. These hearings provided a forum for public discussion
of current succession provisions and their alleged shortcomings; they also provided
a venue for the presentation and discussion of airing a wide range of proposals for
change. While a foundation has thus been laid, in the final analysis, future
congressional action in the area of presidential succession will arguably depend on
such factors as strong and consistent support from congressional leadership, the
pressure of an aroused public, or the threat of a succession catastrophe.
59 John Fortier, Testimony, p. 14.
Appendix: Presidential and
Vice Presidential Successions
Table 1. Presidential Successions by Vice Presidents
Year President Party* Vacancy** Successor
1841William Henry HarrisonW1John Tyler
1850Zachary TaylorW1Millard Fillmore
1865Abraham LincolnR2Andrew Johnson
1881James A. GarfieldR2Chester A. Arthur
1901William McKinleyR2Theodore Roosevelt
1923Warren G. HardingR1Calvin Coolidge
1945Franklin D. RooseveltD1Harry S Truman
1963John F. KennedyD2Lyndon B. Johnson
1974Richard M. NixonR3Gerald R. Ford
Source: Compiled by Congressional Research Service.
* Party Affiliation:
D = Democratic
R = Republican
W = Whig
** Cause of Vacancy:
1 = death by natural causes
2 = assassination
Table 2. Vice Presidential Successions
Under the 25th Amendment61
1973Spiro T. AgnewR1Gerald R. Ford
1974Gerald R. FordR2Nelson A. Rockefeller
Source: Compiled by Congressional Research Service.
* Party Affiliation:
R = Republican
** Cause of Vacancy:
1 = resignation
61 Prior to ratification of the 25th Amendment, the vice presidency was vacant on 16
occasions. Eight resulted when the Vice President succeeded to the presidency (see Table
1). Seven resulted from the Vice President’s death: George Clinton (Democratic Republican
— DR), 1812; Elbridge Gerry (DR), 1814; William R. King (D), 1853; Henry Wilson (R),
1875; Thomas A. Hendricks (D), 1885; Garret A. Hobart (R), 1899; and James S. Sherman
(R), 1912. One Vice President resigned: John C. Calhoun (D), in 1832.
Table 3. The Order of Presidential Succession
(under the Succession Act of 1947)
Speaker of the House of Representatives
President Pro Tempore of the Senate
Secretary of State
Secretary of the Treasury
Secretary of Defense
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
Source: 3 U.S.C. 19, (d)(1).