A Brief History of Presidential Succession
Congress has wrestled with the issue of presidential succession throughout our history. Between 1901 and 1974, five vice presidents have taken over the top office due to four presidential deaths and one resignation. In fact, between the years 1841 to 1975, more than one-third of all U.S. presidents have either died in office, quit, or become disabled. Seven vice presidents have died in office and two have resigned resulting in a total of 37 years during which the office of vice president was completely vacant.
The Present System of Presidential Succession: President and Vice President
The 20th and 25th Amendments of the Constitution establish procedures and requirements for the vice president to assume the duties and powers of the president if the president is permanently, or temporarily disabled. In the event of a temporary disability, the vice president serves as president until the president recovers. The president may declare the beginning and ending of his or her own disability. But, if the president is unable to communicate, the vice president and a majority of the president’s Cabinet, or "...other body as Congress may by law provide..." may determine the president's state of disability. Should the president's ability to serve be disputed, Congress decides. They must, within 21 days, and by a 2/3 vote of each house, determine whether the president is able to serve or not. Until they do, the vice president acts as president.
The 25th Amendment also provides a method for filling a vacated office of the vice president. The president must nominate a new vice president, who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.
Has this process ever been tested? In October, 1973, Vice President Sprio Agnew resigned and President Richard Nixon nominated Gerald R. Ford to fill the office. Then, in August, 1974 President Nixon resigned, Vice President Ford became president and nominated Nelson Rockefeller as the new vice president. Although the circumstances that caused them were distasteful, the transfers of power went smoothly and with little or no controversy.
Beyond President and Vice President
The Presidential Succession Law of 1947 addressed the simultaneous disability of both the president and vice president. Under this law, here are the offices and current office holders who would become president should both the president and vice president be disabled. To assume the presidency, a person must also meet all the legal requirements to serve as president:
1. Speaker of the House
2. President pro Tempore of the Senate
3. Secretary of State
4. Secretary of the Treasury
5. Secretary of Defense
6. Attorney General
7. Secretary of the Interior
8. Secretary of Agriculture
9. Secretary of Commerce
10. Secretary of Labor
11. Secretary of Health & Human Services
12. Secretary of Housing & Urban Development
13. Secretary of Transportation
14. Secretary of Energy
15. Secretary of Education
16. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
17. Secretary of Homeland Security
Presidents Who Became President by Succession
Chester A. Arthur
Gerald R. Ford *
Lyndon B. Johnson
Harry S. Truman
* Gerald R. Ford assumed the office upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. All others were due to the death of their predecessor.
Presidents Who Served, But Were Never Elected
Chester A. Arthur