An opinion piece on this page the other day urged Congress to change the presidential succession law so that Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, is not third in line for the presidency. This in order to make the impeachment nonpartisan. Otherwise, the article said, Republicans might think of it as a partisan effort to put Mrs. Pelosi in the White House.
I think this far fetched. I doubt that Republicans are worried about that. If the president were impeached and convicted, Vice President Mike Pence would become president. And then, as president, he would nominate someone to be vice president, who would be confirmed by majority votes in both houses of Congress That’s what was done in 1973 when Vice President Spiro Agnew, under the cloud of a possible impeachment, resigned the office and was replaced by Gerald Ford.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 does put the speaker third in line, right after the vice president. But in the real world of politics, the chances of Mrs. Pelosi ending up in the White House are nil. Various acts of Congress, plus the 25th Amendment, passed in 1967, have pretty much changed the whole ball game.
The issue of presidential succession has engaged the attention of the country from the start. The original Constitution says that in the event of a president being unable “to discharge the Powers and Duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President. ”
The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 specified that if the president and the vice president were unable to perform the duties of the office, they would be succeeded by the president pro tem of the Senate and then the speaker of the House of Representatives.
In 1888, after the assassination of President James Garfield, Congress changed the succession law again — from vice president to the cabinet members, beginning with the secretary of state. That remained in force until 1947, when a new Presidential Succession Act specified that the third in line would be the speaker of the House of Representatives, followed by the president pro tem of the Senate, and then the cabinet members.
It was thought at the time that would be enough to cover all contingencies, but the 9/11 disaster got people thinking about possible situations in which the whole upper echelon of government officials – vice president, House speaker, Senate president pro tem would be wiped out. Historians remember that John Wilkes Booth’s plan in 1865 to assassinate President Lincoln included plans to assassinate Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward at the same time, thus decapitating the government. The 25th Amendment doesn’t cover everything. Constitutional scholars are trying to fill the gaps.
When we consider that seven presidents and six vice presidents have died in office, it seems amazing that we have never had a double vacancy at the White House. Yet the nation got along for more than 200 years without a backup vice president. The 25th Amendment deals with that. Also, If the vice president, for any reason, is unable to perform the duties of the office, the president nominates a vice president who then has to be approved by the Senate.
The 20th Amendment tries to cover another possibility — the death of a president-elect before inauguration. In that case, the vice president-elect will act as president until another election is held. It also authorizes Congress to make any final decision.
The 25th Amendment, adopted after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, covers a number of possible exigencies, including an incapacitated president. The framers of that amendment were doubtless thinking of President James A. Garfield, mortally wounded in March 1881, dead three months later. He had been in a semi-coma, unable to conduct national affairs.
Almost as dire was the case of President Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke on October 2, 1919, and remained more or less incapacitated for the rest of his term in office, during which time his wife strictly controlled access to him.
The amendment’s framers also may have recalled the frail condition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt after his trip to Yalta in February, 1945. He died three months later.
At any rate, the 25th Amendment tries to provide a way for an orderly presidential succession in almost any imaginable situation.
The 25th Amendment has been invoked only twice — in 1973, when Agnew resigned to avoid impeachment and was replaced by Ford, and in 1974, when President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, and was succeeded by Ford, who then nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president.
And that’s where we stand today in regard to presidential and vice presidential succession. I don’t see any need to change the law at the moment.