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.

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Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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What Benefits Do Presidents Get After They Leave Office?

Barack Obama walks on the colonnade after leaving the Oval Office for the last time as President on January 20, 2017.
Barack Obama walks on the colonnade after leaving the Oval Office for the last time as President on January 20, 2017.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Former presidents have pursued a range of careers after departing the Oval Office. While many presidents have written books or made post-office careers of giving speeches to earn income, others have started nonprofit organizations to continue the charitable endeavors they were able to support during their presidential tenures. William Howard Taft took a different route when he went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. But after holding the highest office in the land, are presidents working because they have to—or because they want to? And what retirement benefits, if any, do former commanders-in-chief get?

According to the Former Presidents Act, which was passed in 1958, ex-presidents are entitled to a handful of benefits following their presidency, including a pension and funds for travel, office space, and personal staff. Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the act largely to help Harry Truman, who struggled to support himself after leaving the White House. Truman turned down a slew of cushy job offers, explaining that, "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the Presidency."

Today, more than 60 years later, former presidents can thank the Former Presidents Act and similar legislation for their lifelong benefits. The Secretary of the Treasury currently pays a lifetime annual pension of just north of $200,000 to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. If a former president dies before their spouse, the spouse gets an annual pension of $20,000 as well as franked mail privileges and lifelong Secret Service protection (unless they remarry).

The Government Services Administration pays for office space, furniture, staff, and supplies. It also reimburses them for their move out of the White House and any work-related travel they do. The amount of money former presidents get for their office space and staff varies. In 2010, for example, Carter’s office in Atlanta came in at $102,000 per year, while Bill Clinton’s New York office was $516,000.

Besides a pension and office-related funds, former presidents get lifelong Secret Service protection for themselves, their spouses, and their children under 16. In 1985, 11 years after resigning the presidency, former President Richard Nixon decided to forgo his Secret Service detail. Claiming that he wanted to save the U.S. government money—his Secret Service protection cost an estimated $3 million each year—Nixon opted to pay for his own bodyguard protection rather than have taxpayers fund it. Although Nixon was the only president to refuse Secret Service protection, his wife opted to drop her protection one year earlier.

Nixon's decision to resign the office of the presidency was probably a smart decision, financially speaking, as the Act indicates that a president who is forced out of office via impeachment would not be entitled to these post-presidency benefits. But because Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, the Department of Justice ruled that Nixon should be eligible to receive the same financial benefits of his fellow former presidents. Similarly, because Clinton was impeached but acquitted, his retirement benefits were safe.

Some critics point out that living former presidents, with their millions of dollars of income from speeches and books, shouldn’t use taxpayer money to supplement their already vast incomes. But it looks like benefits for former presidents are here to stay.

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