Today’s topic is somewhat obscure and isn’t given much thought by the average citizen until it comes into play. When it needs to be put into action, it is of monumental importance.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 18, 1947. To fully appreciate US Presidential Succession, however, we need to first look at the United States Constitution and the Presidential Succession Acts prior to 1947. Later in this post, we’ll learn about what has happened on this matter since 1947.
My post today is longer than usual, but please read on. You might learn something. I did!
US Constitution, Article II, Section I, Clause 6
The vice president is designated as the first in the presidential line of succession by Clause 6 in Section I, Article II of the US Constitution. That is all many Americans know, since we’ve never lost a sitting president and sitting vice president at the same time… or lost a president who has assumed the office due to the death or incapacity of his predecessor.
Clause 6 also gives Congress the authority to provide for the line of succession after the vice president.
US Presidential Succession Act of 1792
The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 designated the US Senate president pro tempore as next in line after the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House.
US Senate Practice in the 1800s
During most of the 19th century, the US Senate assumed it could elect a president pro tempore only during the absence of a vice president. With Congress only being in session approximately half the year at that time, concerns were raised over the high mortality rate of the era. What if the president and vice president both died or became incapacitated during Congress’ adjournment?
The solution was for the vice president to voluntarily exit the Senate chamber before the current session of Congress ended. While the vice president was out of the room, the Senate would elect a president pro tempore.
That scheme sort of worked for decades, but then vice presidents from the minority political party started fearing that in their absence from the Senate chamber, someone not from their political party might be elected. To remedy that, some vice presidents refused to leave the chamber while the vote was taken.
Congressional Action in 1886
No deed goes unpunished, and it seems that Congressional members are always looking for something they can change and take credit for. In 1886, Congress changed the presidential succession order after the vice president cabinet secretaries in the order in which their federal departments had been created.
No Act of Congress goes uncriticized. Proponents of the 1886 Act maintained that the office Senate pro tempore is filled based on parliamentary skills and not on the person’s executive skills.
The Death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945
Vice President Harry Truman was in House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s office enjoying a glass of bourbon when they received word that President Roosevelt had died and Truman was to take the oath of office for the Presidency as quickly as possible.
Mr. Truman was friends with Sam Rayburn and had a somewhat strained relationship with Senate President Pro Tempore Kenneth McKellar. It came as no surprise then when President Truman started campaigning for a change in presidential succession.
Arguing that Sam Rayburn had been chosen by his Congressional peers to be their leader in the office of Speaker of the House, Truman pushed for a change in the law.
This was completely political. Although Truman, Rayburn, and McKellar were all Democrats, Truman preferred Rayburn over McKellar and saw his chance to reinstate two elected officials in the line of succession after the vice president and before cabinet members. Cabinet members, of course, are not elected. They are nominated by the sitting US President and reflect the governing philosophy or the President.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947
President Truman prevailed. The result was the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which established the line of succession as the vice president, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tempore, followed by the cabinet secretaries in the order in which their departments were created.
When House and Senate Leaders are in Opposition to the President
Of the 76 years since the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House has not been from the President’s political party 44 years. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate has not been from the President’s political party for 36 of those 76 years.
As we have witnessed in recent years, these situations can create stalemates in Congress when it comes to a US President being able to get his legislative issues passed into law. It boils down to the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government and the system of checks and balances. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. It all depends on which political party or philosophy you align yourself with and how quickly you want to see the laws of the land changed.
The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1967
Until the adoption of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1967, there was no way to replace a deceased, incapacitate, or resigned US vice president or one who had moved into the office of US president due to an unexpected vacancy in that office.
Prior to the 25th Amendment, therefore, the office of vice president remained vacant until the next presidential election. That meant the Speaker of the House was first in line if something happened to the president.
With the 25th Amendment in place when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, President Richard M. Nixon had the authority to nominate Gerald R. Ford on October 12, 1973. Mr. Ford was confirmed by Congress on December 6, 1973. It is ironic, then, that Gerald Ford became the president when Richard Nixon was forced to resign. I was majoring in political science in college at the time. It was a great time to participate in political debates. There was never a dull moment in poli sci class!
When Presidential Succession becomes a concern, it suddenly becomes a big concern
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1962, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became the President. Next in line for the office were 73-year-old Speaker of the House John W. McCormack and 86-year-old Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden.
Our current US president is 79 years old. He might run for reelection in 2024. Regardless of one’s political leanings, age is an issue. That said, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a 73-year-old and an 86-year-old in the year 1962 were definitely considered elderly. Seventy-three isn’t considered as old as it did in 1962 – and I’m not just saying that because I’m in my late 60s.
Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president in 1973. When that happened, Carl Albert was in line for the presidency. I’ve read that Mr. Albert had an alcohol problem and didn’t want to be president; however, when Gerald R. Ford became president less than a year later, Mr. Albert was still next in line. That was not a good situation for the country.
Think back to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. “He who shall not be named” was the US president. He was hospitalized with Covid-19. What if he had died and Vice President Mike Pence had also succumbed to the virus? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was next in line and from the other major political party. Even if you’re a Democrat, you must admit such a transition of power would have created political havoc in our country.
This possible scenario, along with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, raise the question of presidential succession anew. It has been suggested that the Secretary of Homeland Security should be elevated from last in the line of succession to a higher position in that line
What do you think?
Is it time for Congress to revisit the line of presidential succession?
I think it is, but members of Congress and the American public are too polarized in 2022 for anything of such importance to be considered. Everything today is decided along political party lines – even in the US Supreme Court and perhaps within the US Secret Service.
When the political pendulum swings back to a more moderate place of common sense and an adherence to the philosophy that all elected officials should only work for the common good, perhaps then the issue of Presidential Succession can be revisited.
Since my last blog post
My sister and I enjoyed an overnight trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (By the way, I wrote a vintage postcard book by that name a few years ago and it’s still available on Amazon and from Arcadia Publishing. You just might like to read it and see the postcards which all date prior to 1970, with most being from the 1940s and 1950s. Pardon the shameless plug for my book. I must blow my own horn.)
It poured rain on us most of the way to Boone on Sunday, and then dense fog set in and blocked our views along the Blue Ridge Parkway most of the way to Asheville. Even so, it was good to get away if just for a couple of days.
Upon returning home, I took the plunge and purchased access to Atticus writing software. I’ve started my first book on the platform, which formats one’s writing ready for electronic and print publication. That first book is tentatively called The Aunts in the Kitchen: Tried and True Recipes from the Aunts in Our Family.
I read a book that’s been on my “To Be Read” (TBR) list for several years. One down, 300+ books to go.
It’s been a good week.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book or two to read. I’m listening to and reading books by some authors I’ve not read before.
Take time for family, friends, and a hobby.
Remember the four-year-old little girl in Ukraine who was pushing her baby stroller one minute and was killed by a Russian rocket the next; the surviving children in Uvalde and the parents who lost children in the domestic terrorist attack there; and the orphaned two-year-old boy, the partially-paralyzed little boy, and all the grieving and traumatized people in Highland Park. Unfortunately, the list could go on and on.
Value each day you have.