The Most Deadly Job In America:When the president dies, who becomes the president?
Well, the Constitution says what happens next is the vice president assumes the powers and duties of the office.
Simple enough, but one back-up president is none back up president.
So what happens next next?
The Constitution left this question as homework for the new Congress.
Important homework, yes.
Due date, no.
So Congress sort of worked on succession, with inconsistent and conflicting drafts, but mostly procrastinated on properly finishing for two hundred years.
Finally turning in the 25th Amendment.
Better late than never.
Though, in the meantime, a president had died in office not once, not twice, not thrice, not quadrice, not quintice, not hexice, nor septice, but octagonalice!
Four natural causes.
This survival record was only 80%.
And even counting to today, the president is technically the most deadly job in America.
But the odds are, when you become president, you must roll the celestial 2D6, and if you roll a seven you die in office. Whoof.
Don’t spend a lot of time in Vegas with those odds.
So the veep becomes the peep and picks a new veep who must be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.
If this happens quickly, then hunky-dory.
Everything is reset.
But getting a VP nominee approved might take some time, during which the former VP, who is now the president, who is not immortal, must cast the dice, and could roll a seven.
The office of the vice president has been vacant for more than a baker’s dozen of times in United States history.
Which, given the historical state of Congress’s homework at the time, put the peaceful transfer of power in a precarious position.
For example, the first time a president died in office no one knew what should happen.
The then-VP just grabbed a judge to administer the oath of the presidency to become number ten and spent the rest of his term arguing with Congress and the nation about if he was really the president or the acting president.
Which seems a little, “Who cares? What’s the difference?”
But there is the office of the president and there are the powers and duties of the office, which are not quite the same thing.
See, it’s not just Death that can remove a president.
A president can resign.
A president can be impeached.
And a president can be “inable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.”
This last inable is from the Constitution which makes no attempt to define what inable means.
A president can volunteer themselves to be inable upon which they don’t leave the office, but the VP gets the powers and duties of the office and becomes acting president.
This, on a tiny scale, has happened a few times when the president has undergone non-trivial surgery.
A reason for this being to ensure nuclear weapons command and control is maintained at all times.
So don’t get any ideas.
But also you don’t get any ideas.
I’m still the president.
Power reverts as soon as this is over, and it will,assuming Death doesn’t make a bedside visit.
Anyway, ‘inability’ is a subjective sliding scale.
A president could be perceived as mentally enable or become so mentally enable as to be unable to declare themselves enable, or become physically enable yet simply refuse to declare it.
Here the 25th Amendment allows for the vice president to perform a kind of gentle coup.
Okay, the president has 15 top-level advisors we will get to later.
If the VP can get a majority of advisors to state in writing the president is inable, the VP gets the powers and duties of the office.
The president can challenge this, getting a moment to try and consolidate keys to power, but if the VP and advisors reaffirm the president is indeed enabled, the VP is acting president and a 21-day countdown clock begins.
What happens next is up to Congress.
If they do nothing, when the clock runs out, presidential power returns to the president.
But, if within the 21 days, Congress votes with a two-thirds majority that the president is unable, then the vice president is permanently acting president.
And the president is still around? Awkward.
Obviously, this would be a real delicate maneuver for any VP to pull off, particularly as the president can dismiss their advisors for any reason as long as the president holds the powers and duties of the office.
So getting advisors on board would be challenging.
Case in point.
In 1919, the president suffered a stroke and was mostly blinded and partly paralyzed.
And during this time there was no move by the VP to declare the president inable.
But there might be a way around the VP.
The 25th has this line about Congress appointing like its own committee to determine the president inable.
But the way it’s worded is a little unclear.
Does it mean: The VP AND (advisors OR Congress committee) determine inability?
Or does it mean: the (VP AND advisors) OR Congress committee?
If the latter interpretation, that means Congress alone has the power to appoint a committee with the power to remove the power of the president unilaterally.
But, as always, with unclear interpretations,were they to happen for realzies,
someone might want to weigh in on it.
So those are the four (or five?) ways a president can get removed from office.
But one of them is clearly the most popular, so let’s talk about what the finished congressional homework says about succession.
First, the doubt that began with President Ten is dispelled by the 25th.
“When the president dies, the vice president becomes the president president.”
Inable equals VP acting president.
Dead equals VP president president.
But if both the president and the vice roll sevens, the order of succession is set.
And first up is the Speaker, who is the elected leader from within the House of Representatives.
And next is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, who is the longest-serving senator, not automatically, but elected by tradition.
Gee that’s a funny thing to mention now. I’m sure it won’t matter later.
Senators tend to serve for a long time,so the President Pro Tempore is often in their eighties,with the record holder being 98.
Just worth noting it was up to Congress to set a succession order and Congress just so happened to pick the two most powerful members of Congress as next in line from the VP.
After Congress, succession moves to the Cabinet.
These are the advisors mentioned before.
Each here has the title of Secretary and are Secretary of a same name department.
Explaining each in detail would take too long because it would be to explain the entire structure of the Executive Branch, which is enormous.
And some of their names give you the idea, but some of them don’t.
For example, number four in line, the Secretary of State who runs the Department of State, which has nothing to do with the states, but everything outside the states.
The Secretary of State is first in the Cabinet because managing the foreign relations of the federal government is a pretty big deal that requires you to be on at least decent speaking terms with other countries.
A good thing, should say, you need their support during a sudden transition of power.
The Secretary of State is first among the founding four appointed by the first president.
The others: Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of War, and Secretary of Justice.
Oh wait, fancy pants here wants to be called The Attorney General,but just so happens to be in charge of the Department of Justice.
So the oldest departments have their secretaries in four-five-six-seven order of succession.
Now from here, Congress decided the rest should continue on seniority.
Not for people, but departments.
Which has led to an… interesting order.
Secretary of the Interior is next up because in the 1800s young America realized she had a lot of interior lands to manage and created the Department of the Interior to manage the land and the Indians on the land.
And land needs to farmed and managed,so the Department of Agriculture.
And then in 1900s part one,America wanted to develop Commerce and Labor.
And part two, Health and Human Services.
And Housing and Urban Development.
And oh right, Transportation between those urban developments.
Oh and Energy for those developments and overseeing nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the Department of War renamed the Department of Defense, created veterans and so also the Department of Veterans Affairs.
All done until 2001.
Department of Homeland Security.
So the order is more historical-happenstance-order,not legislators-sat-down-and-thought-it-through-order.
Not to cast shade on the Secretary of Education, but if something has happened where the first 15 backups are out of order,that sounds a lot like a Homeland Security issue.
In addition to the debatable order, for everyone below VP, if their spot in succession comes up,they are required to resign their current position to become acting president.
Most likely serving the rest of the president’s term.
Why most likely?
Well, one of Congress’s homework attempts raises an issue called bumping with this paragraph, saying,it’s another interpretation problem.
This does or doesn’t mean new appointees take priority and bump those lower on the list out of the office instantly.
Here’s the worst case interpretation and scenario.
Imagine while Congress is on recess,the president, VP, both leaders of Congress and the Secretary of State all roll sevens.
The Secretary of Treasury becomes acting president and appoints a new Secretary of State, who is higher on the list, bumping the acting Treasury president off, who is now unemployed, at least until reconfirmed.
And of course, a new Secretary of State is needed posthaste, confirmed.
Back from recess, the Senate elects a new President Pro Tempore, who is higher on the list and then must resign to become acting president, bumping the current acting president, who was the Secretary of State but is now just unemployed.
And then the House elects their new Speaker.
While there is debate about bumping constitutionality,the point is, it’s still President Ten all over again.
Uncertainty is the whole problem.
After a government decapitation, just the potential of rapid-fire changes in power is exactly what you don’t want to be even debatable when nuclear command and control is on the table in what would obviously be trying times.
So maybe a couple more revisions on that homework are due?
This is the current order.
And since the 1950s ,it’s been policy to never let all of these people in a room together at once.
So when you’re watching the next State of the Union Address, if you want something to occupy your mind during all the clapping, you can play Guess Who’s the Designated Survivor.
Knocking down successors as you spot them to figure out who isn’t there,secreted away in a secure location to be the final backup.
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