The United StatesPresidential Succession Act is a federal statute establishing the presidential line of succession.Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress to enact such a statute:
Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Although none of these succession acts have ever been invoked, an invocation was a distinct possibility on several occasions. However, the future likelihood that a person in the line of succession beyond the vice president will be called upon under normal circumstances to be acting president has diminished greatly due to the Twenty-fifth Amendment’s provision for filling vice presidential vacancies.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to declare who should act as president if both the president and vice president died or were otherwise unavailable to serve during their terms of office. Legislation to establish such a line of succession was introduced December 1790, in the House of Representatives of the 1st Congress. When brought up for discussion the following month, the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House were proposed; the Secretary of State and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were as well. Lawmakers failed, however, to reach consensus on who should be the statutory successor. Naming the Secretary of State was unacceptable to most Federalists, as they did not want the office’s current occupant, Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the growing anti-administration opposition that would become the Democratic-Republican Party, placed so close to the presidency. Constitutional and policy objections were raised to naming the President pro tempore of the United States Senate or the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, as it was assumed the individual would retain their office and seat in Congress while temporarily performing duties of the presidency; similar separation of powers concerns were also raised regarding the Chief Justice.
The matter was raised again when the 2nd Congress convened later in 1791. On November 30, the Senate approved legislation titled “An act relative to the election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and declaring the officer who shall act as President in case of vacancies in the offices both of President and Vice President”, which was sent to the House for concurrence. It contained a provision naming the president pro tempore of the Senate, or, if that office were vacant, the speaker of the House of Representatives as acting president if a vacancy arose in both the presidency and vice presidency. Various representatives, including a number of the Constitution’s framers, criticized the arrangement as being contrary to their intent. As a result, after a contentious debate, on February 15, 1792, the House struck out the president pro tempore and speaker and inserted the secretary of state in their place. The Senate rejected the House change a few days later, and the House relented. The bill became law on March 1, 1792, with the signature of President George Washington.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 (Full text ), sections 9 and 10 of a larger act regarding the election of the president and vice president, provided that the president pro tempore of the Senate would be first in line for the presidency should the offices of the president and the vice president both be vacant at the same time. The speaker of the House was second in line. Section 9 provided that the statutory successor would serve in an acting capacity until a new president could be elected.[upper-alpha 1] If such a double vacancy occurred, Section 10 directed the secretary of state to notify the governor of each state of the vacancies and of the special election to fill them. This special election would take place no fewer than two months later. The persons elected president and vice president in such a special election would have served a full four-year term beginning on March 4 of the next year; no such election ever took place.