Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 signed by President Harry Truman. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution covers a variety of scenarios: what happens if there is a presidential vacancy? what happens if there is a vice presidential vacancy? what happens if the president becomes incapacitated? However, it does not answer the question of what happens if both the president and the vice president can no longer serve.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 fills in the gaps of the Twenty-fifth Amendment with regard to the line of succession. This act, and its predecessors, the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 and the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, have never been invoked. The Presidential Act of 1947 is codified in 3 U.S. Code § 19.
The 1792 Act called for the president pro tempore of the Senate to fill the position of the presidency if the president and vice president could no longer serve. If the president pro tempore was unable to serve the speaker of the House would fill the position.
The line of succession changed in 1886. Congressional officers were out and cabinet members were in. Proponents of the new act insisted the president pro tempore and speaker of the House would lack the experience needed to fill the position of the presidency. Instead, the line of succession would go to the president’s cabinet and be determined by the order in which the cabinet positions were created. This meant the secretary of state would be first in line to serve as president if the both the president and vice president could no longer serve. At the time of Presidential Succession Act of 1886, six cabinet positions were filled by former presidents and it was thought these men would better be able to act as president because of their prior experience.
The order of succession changed again in 1947. Today, if the president and vice president can no longer serve, the speaker of the House becomes president. If the speaker of the House cannot serve, the president pro tempore of the Senate fills the position. If both of these officials are unable to fill the position the line of succession moves to the presidential cabinet members and follows the order in which the cabinet positions were created starting with the secretary of state.
While none of the acts have been invoked, many instances have occurred where either the president or vice president could no longer serve, but there are no situations where both were unable to serve. However, thanks to Aaron Sorkin we can catch a glimpse of how the Presidential Succession Act might play out if it were necessary.
In Twenty-Five, episode 23 of season 4 of The West Wing, President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) is unable to fulfill his presidential duties and temporarily steps down from office, invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment. The Twenty-fifth Amendment calls for the vice president to step in; however, Bartlet’s vice president recently resigned due to a scandal, leaving the office vacant as Bartlet had not yet nominated a new vice president. Next in line, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, is the Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken (played by John Goodman). Walken’s political views are in direct conflict with those of the Bartlet administration. The tension is thick as Walken is sworn in as the acting president. As Bartlet makes an effort to ease the situation, Walken retorts, “You are relieved, Mr. President.”
Curious about the Presidential Succession Act? View our Presidential Succession Act reading list to learn more from WPL's government documents collection.