A Thought On Presidential Succession

With the death of Robert Byrd, the position of President Pro Tempore Of The United States Senate, a position designated by law as being third in the Presidential line of succession, will pass from a 92 year-old Senator from West Virginia to an 86 year-old Senator from Hawaii, who has been in office since January 1963.

Am I alone in thinking that this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever ?

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:

    I’ve gone so far as to argue that it makes no sense to have any Member of Congress in the line of succession, at least not until we’ve exhausted the entire Cabinet. It would be a travesty to have an elected Republican succeeded by a random Democrat or vice versa. At least the Cabinet are likely members of the elected president’s party and selected by said president.

  2. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Speaker and President Pro Tem were put into the line of succession. Before then, it was as you suggest with the Secretary of State being the first in line behind the Vice-President.

    Some have suggested that Truman’s motivation in supporting the change may have something to do with the fact that he was drinking buddies with Sam Rayburn.

  3. There are a whole host of issues that Byrd’s death brings up, and Presidential Succession is but one of them. According to the US Senate’s web page, fully 7 of the longest serving Senators in US history either are serving (Inouye, Leahy), left office or died last year (Kennedy, Stevens, Biden, Domenici) or died this year (Byrd).

    Our constitution technically abolishes Titles of Nobility but when people are holding positions of that much power for that long, the only difference between the position and a Title is that your kids don’t inherit the title… but then, we have the Kennedys and the Rockefellers…

    Meet the aristocrats, alive and well in 21st century America.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Does it make sense to have appointed officials in the line of succession? Now if we were to start electing Secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury you might be on to something.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Does it make sense to have appointed officials in the line of succession? Now if we were to start electing Secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury you might be on to something.

    To become Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was appointed by the elected president and confirmed by the elected Senate.

    To become Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi was elected by a tiny, unrepresentative constituency in the San Francisco area and then anointed by the House Democratic caucus.

    It would be even worse if we had a Republican president, in which case whatever tragedy left both the president and vice president dead or incapacitated also overturned the results of the most recent election.

  6. James,

    We agree completely, I think. One question (for everyone): why not make the President Pro Tem a useful office? Why not have it replace majority leader and have it have the same criteria as the majority leader?

  7. Robert,

    I’ve seen some suggestions about creating an emeritus position that would be given to the most Senior Senator in the majority as an honorarium, but which would be outside the line of succession and then selecting someone else for the position of President Pro Tem.

    The problem with combining the offices of President Pro Tem and Majority Leader, at least under Senate rules, is that they fulfill two very different roles in the Senate. The leader pushes through the agenda. The President Pro Tem is theoretically standing in as President of the Senate when the Vice-President is not present. Obviously, you can’t have the same person in both roles