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Mattie Moon

Line of Succession

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley outside a Washington hotel and rushed to a nearby hospital for surgery. Vice President George Bush was on a plane returning to Washington from Texas. Presidential aides and cabinet members gathered at the White House, where questions arose among them and in the press corps about who was "in charge."* Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. rushed to the press briefing room and, before an audience of reporters and live television cameras, said, "As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president.... Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state." 

    Haig was, as many critics subsequently pointed out, wrong. The Constitution says nothing about who follows the vice president in line of succession. The Succession Act of 1947 (later modified to reflect the creation of new departments) establishes first the congressional leaders and then the heads of the departments, in the order the departments were created, in the line of succession that follows the vice president.

The line of succession
  • Vice President
  • Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Attorney General
  • 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 Veterans Affairs

    The full import of the succession act becomes apparent to the American people every year when one department secretary does not attend the president's nationally televised State of the Union address before Congress so that the secretary will be available to succeed to the presidency if the president, vice president, and the other members of the line of succession are assassinated simultaneously.

*"Confusion over Who Was in Charge Arose Following Reagan Shooting." 
Wall Street Journal, April 1, 1981.

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