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What Is a Designated Survivor?

Since the development of nuclear weapons, it has been feared that a nuclear first strike during events like the State of the Union address could cripple the U.S. government.
The U.S. government feared that Soviet ballistic missile submarines could launch surprise first strikes during the Cold War.
The designated survivor remains in a secure and distant spot when the President and others in line to succeed him are gathered in one place.
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  • Originally Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Revised By: A. Joseph
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2014
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The term “designated survivor” is used in a variety of ways, but in American politics, it refers to a member of the presidential line of succession who remains in a secure and distant spot when the other members of the line of succession are gathered in the same location. Designated survivors are used during the State of the Union Address, presidential inaugurations and other events where all of the people in the presidential line of succession might be reasonably expected to gather. The idea behind having a designated survivor is that in the event of a catastrophic event, at least one person would be around to take on the mantle of the presidency. Members of the presidential line of succession generally take turns acting as the designated survivor.

Security Measure

This concept evolved during the Cold War, when the United States government was concerned about the possibility of a nuclear attack that could wipe out all of the elected officials at a major event or meeting. There are situations when the president, vice president, speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate and members of the Cabinet might be gathered together. These situations could present a significant security vulnerability, and the designated survivor concept is designed to reduce that vulnerability.

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Confidential Identity

The identity of the designated survivor is often kept confidential until the last minute. The location where he or she is sheltered is always kept confidential. Along with a designated survivor to take over the presidency, the U.S. government also usually shelters a high-ranking senator who could take over as president pro tempore and a representative who could step in as the speaker of the House.

Legal Issues

A catastrophic event that would require the services of designated survivors had yet to occur by the early 21st century. Many legal issues could arise if most of the people in the presidential line of succession were to be wiped out, especially if Congress was affected as well. For example, while appointing a designated survivor to take over as the speaker of the House might sound logical, the speaker is an elected official, and the House of Representatives would need to be able to form a quorum to elect the designated survivor for him or her to be legally empowered. The same is true of the president pro tempore of the Senate, who also is an elected member of the government.

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Izzy78
Post 7

@simrin - I do not know if there is a requirement in age as far as cabinet posts goes, but if there is not I would assume that they would simply pass it on to the next person.

I know for sure that the President and Vice-President are required by law to be at least thirty five years of age to even take office so this portion of the line of succession is covered.

However, It is possible for the Senate Pro-Tempore to be less than thirty five years old, but this is highly unlikely due to the tradition of the position going to the most senior member of the controlling party of the Senate.

I think that there is probably a law that requires heads of cabinet posts to be a certain age but if there are not I am sure they have it covered with some by law.

SteamLouis
Post 6

What happens if the designated survivor was not born in the US or if he or she is not over 35 years old?

Someone who does not fit these qualifications cannot act as president so are cabinet officers who don't have these qualifications disqualified to be a designated survivor? Or is there an exception made for them in the event of a catastrophe?

discographer
Post 5

As far as I know, "designed survivor" is also used to refer to people who survive after the death of a family member and who is given a pension because of it.

Military personnel and some other kinds of employees have a designated beneficiary who will receive a pension from the government if that person is killed while on duty. It's a way to make sure that family members of a serviceman or woman will be cared for after their death.

turquoise
Post 4

This is a great idea, I don't think it exists in many other countries. I hope such a circumstance never arises where the designated survivor needs to take over as President, but it's still a good idea to be prepared for the worst.

I don't remember which country, but didn't many of the statesmen, including the President of a European country die recently in a plane crash? I remember the country was in turmoil for several days because they had no idea who would take over.

I'm glad we already have a system in place to make sure that the Office of the President and decision makers in Congress are never left empty. Leadership is more necessary during a national security crisis than at any other time.

jholcomb
Post 3

@Kat919 - I like Alas, Babylon, too, but of course that was a little bit of a different situation; the wasn't a designated survivor because the attack had happened without warning. She was just the only one who happened to survive.

I was a big fan of the TV show The West Wing and I remember a great little scene where President Bartlett is talking to the designated survivor, the gy who's going to spend the event sitting in a secure bunker. I think it was before the State of the Union address or something like that. He was giving this poor Secretary of Energy or Transportation or whatever a crash course in being president and what to do if the entire rest of the government was wiped out.

The line I remember is he says, "Do you have a best friend? Is he smarter than you? That's your Chief of Staff." It's just funny how seriously President Bartlett takes the whole thing!

Kat919
Post 2

I didn't realize that a senator and representative were also often sequestered! I guess that makes sense because a president by himself isn't much good. I'm not sure I understand how that really works, though, because the Speaker of the House and president pro tem are positions elected by the House and Senate, not appointed.

This is one of those ideas that make for good fiction. I can think of two different works that both involve a low-ranking Cabinet officer becoming president. (After all, they're all in the line of succession, unless they happen to be foreign-born or too young to be president. I guess Madeline Albright, for instance, was never the designated survivor.) I'm thinking of the novel Alas, Babylon, which a lot of high schools teach, and the remade TV series Battlestar Galactica. In both cases, the new president was a woman who had been the Secretary of Education.

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