What is the Presidential Line of Succession?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The presidential line of succession is a list of people who are legally able to take over the position of President of the United States in the event that the president is incapacitated, killed, impeached and has to leave office, or otherwise unable to perform. The designation of a formal succession plan is designed to protect the integrity of the office of the president by ensuring that the United States will always have a leader, even in a crisis. In order for the presidential line of succession to be exhausted, 18 people would have to be disqualified, incapacitated, or killed, which would be extremely unlikely.

Lyndon Johnson was the vice president who succeeded John F. Kennedy after his assassination.
Lyndon Johnson was the vice president who succeeded John F. Kennedy after his assassination.

Most nations have some form of a line of succession, and the groundwork in the US was laid in the Constitution. The first formal law regarding the matter was passed in 1792, and another was passed in 1886. In 1947, following the death of President Roosevelt, another Presidential Succession Act was passed, and this Act governs the current succession line.

The American flag.
The American flag.

If the President dies, the Vice President is first in line for the office. After the Vice President come the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, respectively. Should all three of these individuals be disqualified or incapacitated, the presidential line of succession turns to the Presidential Cabinet, starting with the Secretary of State and working its way through the Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, 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, and finally the Secretary of Homeland Security.

The first presidential succession law was passed in 1792, when George Washington was in office.
The first presidential succession law was passed in 1792, when George Washington was in office.

There are several caveats involved in the presidential line of succession. The first is that acting officials cannot be considered in line for succession. For example, if the Secretary of Defense steps down and an acting official is appointed to fill this position, that official is not part of the line. Likewise, non-natural citizens are excluded. The Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore rank high on the list thanks to the 1947 Act of Presidential Succession, which was championed out of concern that the president could potentially appoint his or her successor if the Cabinet members are ranked first. The Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore are elected officials, giving citizens a role in their selection, and Congress has the power to recall Cabinet members if it sees fit.

The White House, home of the president of the United States.
The White House, home of the president of the United States.

To prevent a catastrophic situation in which every person in the presidential line of succession could be incapacitated, such as a terrorist attack, the officials who could succeed to the position are never allowed to be in the same place at the same time. Even at events when all would normally be present, at least one person is taken offsite to a secure location. By convention, members of the line usually do not travel together or stay in the same locations, even if they are attending the same events.

The President Pro Tempore is in the line of presidential succession.
The President Pro Tempore is in the line of presidential succession.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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