Who's Next? A Look at Presidential Succession

iStock/bboserup
iStock/bboserup

Between 1841 and 1975, more than a third of U.S. presidencies ended abruptly because of death, resignation or disability. But even with the leader of the free world gone, the country never descended into anarchy. How'd we pull that off?

Well, there's this nifty little thing called the line of presidential succession, which lays out who steps up to become, or act as, President upon the death, resignation, removal or incapacitation of a sitting president or president-elect.

How does it work? And does it work? Let's start at the beginning"¦

The Law of the Line

Succession law begins with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which declared that should the office of the president become vacant, the VP, the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House would be in line to act as president until a special election could be held to fill the office.

When President Garfield (pictured) was assassinated in 1881, there was no President pro tempore or Speaker of the House in office, which left no line after the vice president. To guard against future situations like that, President Cleveland asked Congress to revise the Succession Act in 1885. The new act was passed a year later, with the officers of the President's Cabinet replacing the President pro tempore and Speaker of the House in the order in which the cabinet offices were established.

The order of the line changed once more with another succession act in 1947. The President pro tempore and Speaker of the House were added back to the line ahead of the cabinet officers, but with their positions from the 1792 act switched.

The line has stayed the same since 1947, but one more piece of important succession legislation came in 1967. The 25th Amendment clarified some ambiguous succession language in the Constitution and set a procedure for filling a vacant vice president's office. Prior to the amendment, if the VP died, resigned or succeeded the president, their office remained vacant (in fact, the country has gone a total of 37 years without a VP). The amendment established that the president would nominate a new VP, who would then be confirmed by a majority vote in Congress.

If something were to happen to the President today"¦

The current line of succession is:

  • The Vice President - Dick Cheney
  • Speaker of the House - Nancy Pelosi
  • President pro tempore of the Senate -  Robert Byrd
  • Secretary of State - Condoleezza Rice
  • Secretary of the Treasury - Henry Paulson
  • Secretary of Defense - Robert Gates
  • Attorney General - Michael Mukasey
  • Secretary of the Interior - Dirk Kempthorne
  • Secretary of Agriculture - Edward T. Schafer
  • Secretary of Commerce - Carlos Gutierrez
  • Secretary of Labor - Elaine Chao
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services - Mike Leavitt
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development - Steven C. Preston
  • Secretary of Transportation - Mary E. Peters
  • Secretary of Energy - Samuel Bodman
  • Secretary of Education - Margaret Spellings
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs - James Peake
  • Secretary of Homeland Security - Michael Chertoff

There are a few catches here. One, every person in the line has to meet the eligibility requirements of the presidency to step into the position. Both Secretary Gutierrez and Secretary Chao are ineligible because they were born in Cuba and Taiwan, respectively. Likewise, any member of the cabinet who is under 35 or hasn't resided in the U.S. for 14 years is ineligible to become president. Two, some members of the cabinet, like the White House Chief of Staff, are not in the line of succession. Only secretaries of departments in the executive branch are included.

The End of the Line

What if the excrement hits the air-conditioning, though, and everyone in the line is unable to assume the presidency? None of the current succession laws say anything about it. Instead, the government is just very careful about keeping everyone in the line from being in the same place at the same time. For events that all persons in the line usually attend "“ the State of the Union address, joint sessions of Congress, presidential inaugurations "“ one member of the cabinet eligible for the presidency is selected as the designated survivor and hidden in an undisclosed location for the duration of the event. In case disaster strikes, the designated survivor will be able to take charge.

Bonus Succession Trivia

Presidents Arthur, Coolidge, Fillmore, Ford, Andrew Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman and Tyler all became president by succession.
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When President Arthur traveled, he left an envelope at the White House addressed simply to "The President." If something happened to him, he assumed the right person would open it.
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Gerald Ford has to be the man who benefited most from the line of succession. Nixon's vice president, Sprio Agnew, resigned after the 25th Amendment was ratified. President Nixon nominated Ford to fill the spot. Not long after that, Nixon resigned, and Ford took another step up the ladder. The system works!
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For a period of time, the Postmaster General was the senior officer of the Post Office Department "“ a part of the cabinet "“ and the last person in the line of succession. In 1971, the Post Office Department became the U.S. Postal Service and the Postmaster General was removed from both the cabinet and the line.
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The line of succession has a few kinks in it. For one thing, the Constitution doesn't allow members of the legislative branch to also serve in the executive branch (what with the separation of powers and all). If the Speaker of the House or the President pro tempore had to assume the presidency, they would first need to resign from their current position, which means they would be out of the line. If you're a stickler for details, this could be a bit of a paradox.
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Succession law also doesn't provide any direction for a situation where a former president ineligible to serve another term is in the line of succession (if they don't close that loophole, it's a great way for Slick Willy to sneak back into office).
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Of course, the kinks haven't been a problem, since no officer beyond the vice president has ever been called upon to become, or act as, President.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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