Succession to the office of President of the United States is provided for by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title 3, Section 19 of the U.S. Code (3 U.S.C. §19). The Twenty-Fifth Amendment states in Section 1 that when the office of President of the United States becomes vacant due to “removal … death or resignation” of the chief executive, “the Vice President shall become President.” In Section 2, it further provides that, when the office of Vice President becomes vacant for any reason, the President shall nominate a successor, who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Sections 3 and 4 of the amendment provide for cases of presidential disability; for further information on this issue, consult CRS Report R45394, Presidential Disability Under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Constitutional Provisions and Perspectives for Congress, by Thomas H. Neale.
Authority for succession beyond these two offices is provided in Article II, Section 1, clause 6 of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to “by Law provide for the case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President” The Succession Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 380), as amended, found at Title 3, Section 19 of the U.S. Code (3 U.S.C. §19), governs this eventuality. The 1947 act provides that if the offices of President and Vice President are vacant simultaneously, the Speaker of the House of Representatives acts as President, after resigning from the House and from the office of Speaker. If the speakership is also vacant, the President pro tempore of the Senate acts as President, after resigning from the Senate and from the office of President pro tempore. If both offices are vacant, the Secretary of State, who heads the most senior executive department, acts as President. If that office is vacant, then the Secretary of the next most senior department succeeds, continuing through the executive departments, ranked in order of when they were established by law—from the Secretary of State, through the Secretary of Homeland Security. If they do assume the acting presidency, the law further states that taking the presidential oath of office constitutes an automatic resignation from their Cabinet position. All potential successors must have been duly sworn in to their previous offices and meet the presidency’s constitutional requirements of 35 years of age, “natural born” citizenship, and 14 years residence “within the United States,” as prescribed in Article II, Section 1, clause 5 of the Constitution. Anyone serving as acting President under the act can be supplanted or “bumped” if a person holding an office higher in the order of succession takes the position. Since 1947, the Succession Act has been has been updated regularly to include the heads of newly created executive departments.
Presidential succession was seemingly a settled issue prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11). These events demonstrated the potential for a mass “decapitation” of both legislative and executive leadership and raised the question of whether current arrangements are adequate to guarantee continuity in government in such circumstances. Legislation was proposed to revise or expand the line of succession in several Congresses in the years following 9/11. Nongovernmental organizations also promoted similar plans during this period. The only legislative change enacted during that time, however, was inclusion of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as 18th in order of succession, a provision enacted in Title V, Section 503, of the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (120 Stat. 192).
For some years prior to 9/11, and continuing since that event, observers and scholars of presidential succession have questioned certain aspects of existing succession law. Some of these center on the following issues. Do the Speaker and President pro tempore qualify as “officers” under the Constitution’s succession provisions? Are senior congressional leaders best qualified to serve as acting chief executive? Would the succession of a congressional leader of a different party than the departed incumbent overturn “the people’s choice” in the previous presidential election? Would the nation be well served by the “bumping” procedure described above? Has the nation taken adequate precautions in the event a candidate or candidates were to die or leave the ticket at any one of several stages between election day and the January 20 presidential inauguration? These and other related issues are examined in this report.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, proposed by Congress in 1965 and ratified in 1967, provides that the Vice President “shall become President” on the death, resignation, or removal from office of the President.1 In Article II, Section 1, clause 6, the Constitution delegates authority for succession beyond the Vice President to Congress, authorizing it to “by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President.” The Twentieth Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1932 and ratified by the states in 1933, revised and clarified earlier succession procedures. Its most notable provision established January 20 as the date on which presidential terms of office begin. Since 1792, Congress has also exercised its authority through three acts providing for presidential succession: in 1792, 1886, and 1947. Today, the Succession Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 380, 3 U.S.C. §19) and the two aforementioned amendments govern succession to the presidency.
Although the issue was occasionally revisited by Congress with an eye to revision, presidential succession was generally considered to be a settled issue prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11). These events, however, demonstrated the potential for a mass “decapitation” of both the legislative and executive branches of government, and raised questions among some observers as to whether current arrangements were adequate to guarantee continuity in Congress and continuity in and succession to the presidency under such circumstances. Wide ranging discussions followed in both Congress and the public policy community on succession issues in the years after 9/11. Bills introduced addressed this question in the contemporary context, while nongovernmental organizations explored alternatives and suggested changes in presidential succession procedures. Of various bills introduced in Congress in the decade following 9/11, the only succession-related legislation to be enacted was Title V, Section 503, of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192), which incorporated the office of Secretary of Homeland Security into the line of succession.
Although no major succession-related legislation emerged from the activities following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the body of research and proposals explored and developed in Congress and the public policy community during those years could serve as a resource for Congress should it consider alternative approaches to presidential succession or revision of existing succession procedures in the future.
“Presidential Succession: Perspectives and Contemporary Issues for Congress,” CRS Report R46450, July 14, 2020 (36-page PDF)
- The Constitution of the United States: Amendment 25 (25th Amendment – Presidential Disability and Succession)
- “Presidential Disability Under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Constitutional Provisions and Perspectives for Congress,” CRS Report R45394 (39-page PDF)
- Presidential Succession (CongressionalGlossary.com)
- 3 U.S. Code § 19. Vacancy in offices of both President and Vice President; officers eligible to act (LII)
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