On this day in history, President Harry Truman signed into law an act clarifying the order of succession in the event of the death of a sitting president.
Article II of the Constitution, as originally adopted, states:
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 be elected.”
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, Congress named the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in that order, to succeed if the presidency and vice presidency were both vacant. During debate on the bill, and in all debates on the issue thereafter, 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. Nevertheless, the bill was enacted.
President James A. Garfield’s death led to a major change in succession law. Shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, the President survived 79 days before succumbing on September 19. Vice President Chester A. Arthur took office, but the positions of Speaker and President Pro Tempore were vacant throughout the President’s illness. 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 certain conditions were met. 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.
When the 1945 death of Franklin Roosevelt propelled Vice President Truman into the presidency, Truman urged placing the Speaker, as an elected representative of his district, as well as the chosen leader of the “elected representatives of the people,” next in line to the vice president. The new law restored the Congressional officers to places directly after the Vice President, but switched their order from the 1792 Act, placing the Speaker of the House first and the President Pro Tempore second. The Presidential Cabinet Secretaries and Officers then followed, again in the order in which their respective departments were created.
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. While Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded without incident after Kennedy’s death, it was noted 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 worried 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. It was 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.
In particular, Section 2 provides:
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”
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.
Following the events of September 11, 2001 and the prospect of a “decapitation” of a large part of the U.S. government by an act of mass terrorism, there have been proposals to reexamine presidential succession. In March 9, 2006, the Presidential Succession Act was amended to add the Secretary of Homeland Security after the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
A number of issues characterize current debates about further revision of succession, including the old argument about whether federal legislators are “Officers” under the Constitution’s Succession Clause; the need for efficient conduct of the presidency (i.e., would, for example, the President Pro Tempore have the necessary skills to serve as president?); and the important matter of divided government: suppose the successor is from a different party?
These measures run in parallel to the Government’s use of secret “Continuity of Operations” plans, a practice instituted by modern presidential administrations in response to the perceived threat of a nuclear war. Provisions of the plans (made by presidents using secret Emergency Action Orders, which for the most part are classified because of national security concerns) have designated certain government officials to assume Cabinet and other executive branch positions and carry out the responsibilities of the position if the primary office holders are killed. Eisenhower’s plan, for example, named industry titans, such as Theodore Koop of the CBS Television Network Broadcast House to head the “Office of Censorship”; Reagan’s National Security Council designated Oliver North as the “action officer” for the secret program. (Oliver North was later indicted on 16 felony counts and convicted on three of them pursuant to the Iran-contra scandal.)