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Presidential line of succession

The Presidential line of succession defines who becomes President of the United States of America, upon the death, resignation, or removal from office (by impeachment) of a current President. The sequence has changed over the years since it was first extended beyond the Vice President.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 established the President pro tempore of the Senate next in line of succession after the Vice President, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

This remained in effect until 1886 when Congress replaced the President pro tempore and Speaker with officers of the President's Cabinet. In the first 100 years of the United States, six former Secretaries of State had gone on to be elected President, while no Congressional leaders had advanced to that office. As a result, shuffling of the line of succession seemed reasonable.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman changed the order once again to the sequence we have today. The order of Cabinet members was chosen for the order in which their respective departments were established. When it was created in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security was placed last in the list, in accordance with tradition. However, legislation was soon written to move the Secretary up to number eight on the list because the Secretary, already in charge of disaster relief and security, would presumably be more prepared to take over the Presidency than some of the other Cabinet Secretaries. The legislation is currently pending passage in Congress.

As of yet, the United States has never had a President who has inherited the Presidency from any office other than that of the Vice President. In the 1970s, House Speaker Carl Albert[?] came close during the Watergate crisis however, and was second in line to the Presidency during the period in which Richard Nixon had no Vice President and was widely expected to resign.

In 1981 Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig boldly proclaimed that he was "in charge" of the White House, after President Reagan was shot and Vice President Bush was detained overseas. This claim was quickly denounced by many, as according to the line of successon below, Haig was still two positions away from legally obtaining "control."

Here is the Presidential line of succession (and the current officer holder):

  1. Vice President (Richard B. Cheney)
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dennis Hastert)
  3. President pro tempore of the Senate (Ted Stevens)
  4. Secretary of State (Colin Powell)
  5. Secretary of the Treasury (John W. Snow)
  6. Secretary of Defense (Donald H. Rumsfeld)
  7. Attorney General (John Ashcroft)
  8. Secretary of the Interior (Gale Norton[?])
  9. Secretary of Agriculture (Ann M. Veneman[?])
  10. Secretary of Commerce (Donald L. Evans[?])
  11. Secretary of Labor (Elaine L. Chao) (ineligible)
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Tommy G. Thompson)
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Mel Martinez[?]) (ineligible)
  14. Secretary of Transportation (Norman Yoshio Mineta)
  15. Secretary of Energy (Spencer Abraham)
  16. Secretary of Education (Roderick Paige[?])
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Anthony J. Principi[?])
  18. Secretary of Homeland Security (Tom Ridge)

It should be noted that an official cannot succeed to the Presidency without meeting the Constitutional requirements. Of the above candidates, Secretaries Elaine Chao and Mel Martinez are constitutionally ineligible to assume the Presidency, as they are not natural born citizens.

The Twenty-fifth Amendment, ratified in 1967, established the procedure for determining when the President is incapable of discharging his powers and duties, and it also required Vice Presidential vacancies to to be filled immediately by the President. Previously, when a Vice President had ascended to the Presidency, the Vice Presidency remained vacated.

Though the formal list of Presidential succession only has 18 candidates, there are conspiracy theories about the existence of a much longer, secret list that ranks hundreds of politicians. Though it is possible a longer list could have been devised as a part of the Continuity of Operations Plan in the anticipation of nuclear war, such a list would be unlikely to have any legal or constitutional standing.

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