The United States has a process known as Presidential Succession for transferring presidential authority. This process is separate from the quadrennial presidential election and applies in various scenarios. These scenarios include the death, resignation, removal from office, or inability to fulfill duties of a President or Vice President. It also applies if a president-elect or vice president-elect dies or fails to qualify. The U.S. Constitution outlines the procedures for these situations in three parts: Article II, Section 1, Clause 6; the 20th Amendment; and the 25th Amendment. Additionally, there is a congressional law passed in 1947 that addresses this matter.
Throughout American history, the importance of having a plan for presidential succession has been demonstrated. This is especially clear in the 20th century, during which four presidents passed away and one resigned between 1901 and 1974. Consequently, five vice presidents assumed the role of president. Furthermore, in the 19th century, four vice presidents took office following a president’s death. From 1841 to 1975, over one third of all presidents encountered situations such as death while serving their term, resignation or incapacitation.
Throughout history, the second highest office of the vice president has experienced a total of nine vacancies. These include seven instances where elected vice presidents passed away while in office and two cases where they resigned. Consequently, this significant position remained vacant for an astonishing period exceeding 37 years.
The Constitution states that in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or removal from office, the vice president becomes the president. The 25th Amendment elaborates on this process and outlines that in such circumstances, the vice president assumes presidential responsibilities through an oath and serves as president until the term ends. Additionally, the 25th Amendment establishes a procedure for choosing a new vice president when there is a vacancy.
The vice president is chosen by the president and must be confirmed by a majority vote in both Houses of Congress. The 25th Amendment’s sections 3 and 4 address instances where the president is unable to fulfill their duties because of physical or mental incapacity.
The Constitution provides guidelines for dealing with the president’s incapacity. If the president is unable to carry out their duties, the vice president temporarily assumes authority until the president recovers. Section 3 allows the president to declare their own incapacity and decide how long it will last. Section 4 covers situations where the president is unable to make or communicate such a decision about their inability. In these cases, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet (or another entity chosen by Congress) can declare that the president is incapacitated.
Section 4 states that if the president declares their inability, they must wait for four days after announcing their recovery before resuming their powers and duties. If within this period the vice president and cabinet dispute the president’s claim of recovery, Congress must resolve the issue within a maximum of 21 days. A two-thirds vote from both houses is needed to prevent the president from resuming their powers and duties. In the meantime, during Congress’s deliberations, the vice president serves as the interim president.
According to the Constitution’s Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, Congress has the power to create a succession plan for the presidency in case both the president and vice president are vacant. In line with this provision, a law was passed by Congress in 1947 to establish an explicit order of succession. This law states that after the vice president, the Speaker of the House takes on presidential responsibilities. Afterward, it is followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate and then cabinet members based on their department’s founding date.
The 20th Amendment deals with different situations. In case the president-elect dies, the vice president-elect will take over as president for the entire term. If the president-elect does not meet certain qualifications (like residency or age requirements), the vice president-elect will act as president until the eligible criteria are met. Furthermore, this amendment gives Congress authority to handle scenarios where both the president-elect and vice president-elect die or do not qualify; these situations are addressed through the succession law of 1947.
Before the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, the U.S. presidential succession system relied on Article II, Section 1, Clause 6. This clause dictated that if the President is removed from office or dies, resigns, or becomes unable to perform their duties, the Vice President would assume control. Congress holds authority to enact laws addressing scenarios involving removal, death, resignation, or incapacity of both the President and Vice President. These laws outline which individual will serve as President until the disability is resolved or a new President is elected.
From 1841 to 1963, it was the norm that if a president passed away during their term, the vice president would take over as president until the end of the term. Although there is some indication that the framers of the Constitution originally intended for the vice president to serve as an acting president, Vice President John TYLER took on both the duties and title of president after Harrison’s death. This established a precedent that was followed in all future cases of presidential deaths.
The precedent set by Tyler posed a significant challenge for vice presidents who had to act as presidents in certain situations. These situations include the 80-day period when President James GARFIELD was critically injured in 1881, the extended period when President Woodrow WILSON was unwell due to a stroke, and the three times when President Dwight EISENHOWER was unable to fully perform his responsibilities due to illness.
Due to the lack of distinction in Article II between cases of death and cases of inability, there was a concern that if a vice president took over during a period of inability, they would become president for the remainder of the term even if the elected president recovered before the term ended. This led to a reluctance to hand over the government to the vice president during these periods. The Tyler precedent posed another obstacle, and there were also no established procedures for determining the start and end of a president’s inability.
In 1958, President Eisenhower implemented a plan to address future cases of his inability to function in office. According to this plan, if it seemed necessary, Eisenhower would declare his own disability and allow Vice President Richard NIXON to temporarily assume the role of president until Eisenhower declared himself fit again. If Eisenhower was unable to communicate with Nixon, Nixon had the authority to declare Eisenhower as disabled. Presidents Kennedy and JOHNSON also established similar plans with their potential successors. However, these informal arrangements were not a permanent solution to the problem.
President Kennedy’s death brought attention to deficiencies in the system and resulted in the implementation of the 25th Amendment. The first section of this amendment establishes the Tyler precedent and expands it to include cases of resignation and removal. By removing the condition of “inability” in Sections 3 and 4, and explicitly allowing for an acting president, the amendment resolves the issue that Vice Presidents Chester Alan ARTHUR, Thomas MARSHALL, and Nixon faced during their presidents’ periods of incapacity. This amendment now enables the vice president to assume presidential responsibilities in the event that a president is unable to fulfill their duties.
From 1792 to 1947, Congress implemented three succession statutes for addressing the possibility of vacancies in the positions of president and vice president. The 1792 law included the president pro tempore and the Speaker in the succession order. In 1886, they were removed and replaced by cabinet members. Finally, in 1947, both groups were combined under one law.
The importance of the vice presidency has been increasing, leading to a lack of support for the 1947 succession statute. Following President Kennedy’s assassination, a national consensus emerged to establish a procedure for filling vice presidential vacancies and minimize the likelihood of reaching the statutory line. This procedure, involving nomination by the president and confirmation by both houses of Congress, was added to Section 2 of the 25th Amendment. Consequently, when Vice President Spiro AGNEW resigned in October 1973, this procedure was utilized to appoint Gerald R. FORD as the vice president. Furthermore, when Ford became president due to President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, the procedure was once again used to select Nelson ROCKEFELLER as the vice president.
The resignations of Nixon and Agnew led to suggestions for further changes in the system of presidential succession, including ideas like eliminating the vice presidency or amending the 25th Amendment to allow for a presidential election whenever a vice president takes over. These proposals aim to reduce the duration of time that an unelected individual could serve as president. However, there are concerns that implementing these alterations would impact important principles such as stability and continuity, which have long been upheld in American presidential succession.
Crispell, K. R., and C. F. Gomez, Hidden Illness in the White House (Duke Univ. Press 1988);
Feerick, John D., The Twenty-fifth Amendment (Fordham Univ. Press 1975);
Glennon, Michael J., When No Majority Rules: The Electoral College and Presidential Succession, Congressional Quarterly (Dec. 1992);
Thompson, K. W., ed., Papers on Presidential Disability and the Twenty-fifth Amendment (Univ. Press of Am. 1988).