In times of political and societal turmoil, the government is prepared to keep functioning should the worst happen. One issue that has caused some debate, though thankfully largely in theory rather than practice, is the issue of succession.
If the President were to die while in office, the Vice President would take office. But what if the Vice President were also to pass away?
Order of Succession
As outlined by USA.gov, the succession order after President and V.P. is:
- Speaker of the House
- President Pro Tempore, elected by the Senate.
- Secretary of State
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Defense
- Attorney General
The list carries on with other Secretaries of U.S. departments.
Current Succession Rule
The policy has been in place since July 1947 when President Harry Truman signed the Presidential Succession Act, according to the U.S. Senate's website. This act established several key points of succession:
- The Speaker of the House is next in succession after the Vice President
- The President pro tempore, the senate-elected presidential replacement, is after the V.P. This changed the previous act, from 1792, where the pro tempore was listed before the Speaker.
- The Senate elects a president pro tempore. This vote is traditionally without the V.P. in attendance, though occasionally they want to attend the vote if the Senate is controlled by the opposite political party.
- Truman's argument was that the next in succession after the V.P. should be elected by the people, and as the Speaker is a member of the House and therefore initially elected by their constituency.
- The Senate.gov article notes that Truman's decision may also have been influenced by his friendship with the then-Speaker and "strained relations" with the pro tempore of the time.
There is also some debate over whether the Speaker experiences a conflict of interest in partisan cases, such as in the 2020 impeachment case. An opinion piece in the New York Times notes the potential for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to become President in the remote but possible chance President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were both removed from office. The author, Jesse Wegman, points out several potential problems including the Presidential Office changing party, and partisanship potentially influencing representatives, making people vote on party lines rather than based on the investigation.
For both the Speaker and the pro tempore, these successors are elected by one of the two Legislative branches, independent of the Executive Branch. There has never been the need for the Speaker or pro tempore to take office as President.