Constitution Daily

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Why is there a designated survivor for the State of the Union?

February 5, 2019 by Scott Bomboy


For a brief period on Tuesday night, a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet will be locked away during his State of the Union speech in an obscure but important ritual.

We won’t know until after the event which person was given the role of designated survivor, as the Cabinet official in the direct line of presidential succession in case a disaster, attack, or an unforeseen event.

The Constitution doesn’t directly call for a designated survivor. The presidential line of succession is covered in both Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which was later amended and clarified by the 20th Amendment, and it is detailed in the Presidential Succession Act. But neither requires the sequestering of officials as a practice.

The procedure apparently originated in the late 1950s during the Cold War, and the federal government publicly didn’t acknowledge a designated survivor by name until 1981, when it later said Education Secretary Terrel Bell was absent from a joint session of Congress addressed by President Ronald Reagan as the Designated Survivor.

Since then, a designated survivor has been used for the State of the Union, inaugurations, and presidential speeches to joint sessions of Congress. It is believed the President makes the decision of which Cabinet member is absent with permission from these events.

What is lesser know is that in recent years, some members of Congress also have been designated to skip the State of the Union as a precaution. Senator Orrin Hatch has served in that role twice in recent years.  

Link: Designated survivors since 1984

Last year, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue served in the role as designated survivor. According to records at the University of California’s American Presidency Project, Cabinet members from the Agriculture and Interior departments have served the most as the Designated Survivor for the State of the Union, on six occasions since 1984.

The idea of the designated survivor even made a cameo appearance on the TV series The West Wing, when Martin Sheen’s character informed the Secretary of Agriculture that he would be sent into hiding. Also a recent television series starring Kiefer Sutherland is based on a Designated Survivor scenario.


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