Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Who will be the designated survivor?

January 14, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other in Tucson on Jan. 8 casts a somber shadow over the President's upcoming State of the Union address, and in particular over the precaution of selecting a “designated survivor,” the person who would act as president if something terrible happened.

As President Obama prepares to deliver his second annual State of the Union message to a joint session of Congress, one of the decisions he or a member of his staff must make is who will be this year’s designated survivor.

On the night of his address, Obama will be joined in the House chamber by Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all the members of his Cabinet, except one.

That one Cabinet member left behind is the designated survivor, the person who would become acting president in the event that some catastrophe killed or incapacitated the President, the Vice President and the other gathered officials who are in the presidential line of succession.

The practice of naming a designated survivor began during the Cold War amid fears of a nuclear attack. But nightmares never cease, and the precaution continues amid fears of a terrorist plot.

The practice is not restricted to the State of the Union Address. It comes into play anytime the president and the nation’s top leaders are gathered in one place, including presidential inaugurations and other occasions when the president chooses to deliver a speech to Congress.

Only cabinet members who are eligible to be president – under the Constitution, natural-born citizens over age 35 – are chosen as designated survivors. So who is eligible?

The list follows the presidential line of succession, which is determined by the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 and its subsequent amendments. The Constitution makes the vice president first in the line of succession. It also provides for certain contingencies (such as when the president is temporarily disabled) and gives Congress the power to flesh out who steps up when neither the president nor the vice president can serve.

Taking up the Constitution’s invitation to flesh out the details, Congress has passed a series of succession laws. The first, enacted in 1792, established the president pro tempore of the Senate (by tradition the ranking member of the majority of party) as next in line of succession after the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House. Over the years the order and length of the succession lineup have changed. Currently, the order is: Vice President, Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate, followed by the original Cabinet secretaries -- Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense (originally War) and Attorney General. Next come the rest of the Cabinet in the order in which their posts were created: Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Veteran Affairs and Secretary of Homeland Security.

For last year’s State of the Union Address, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was selected. But the honor, if you can call it that, rotates among the various Cabinet members. When President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in February 2009 (not officially a State of the Union Address), the designated survivor was Attorney General Eric Holder.


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