When President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, he’ll be speaking in front of nearly every influential federal official in Washington — including members of Congress, top military officers, U.S. Supreme Court justices and their administrations. Senior officials of
But at least one top official is not expected to be at the U.S. Capitol building for Biden’s speech, instead participating in an obscure ritual to determine the line of presidential succession in this rare case of disaster. can be maintained. That person is the designated survivor.
Last year, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was the surviving female nominee for Biden’s first State of the Union address, staying away from the Capitol in an undisclosed and secure location during the president’s prime-time remarks.
According to the National Constitution Center, the tradition of naming survivors during State of the Union speeches began in the 1950s as a result of fears of nuclear attack during the Cold War. But the federal government did not publicly name a designated survivor until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary Terrell Bell took over to address a joint session of Congress.
The presidential line of succession is defined in the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which was updated during the Truman administration in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. The latest line of succession was spurred by the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, allowing Harry Truman to assume the highest office.
After the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Defense are next in line of succession. An analysis of the data shows that the attorney general, seventh in line of succession, has been the highest-ranking cabinet member known to have been named a survivor. The head of the Department of Justice has been selected for this role three times.
The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture tie for the most frequent designated survivor appointments, with seven positions each. And while they are further down the line of succession, no Labor or Education secretaries have served as designated survivors.
Although many of the appointments are politically mixed, all three nominated survivors who were Secretary of Veterans Affairs served in that role while a Republican was president. By contrast, Democratic presidents were the only ones to nominate their secretaries from Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security during the State of the Union address.
Although not as well known, the National Constitution Center says that designated survivors have also been used during opening joint sessions of Congress and during presidential addresses. According to the Center, members of Congress have also been designated to leave the State of the Union as a precautionary measure.
A designated survivor must be eligible to become president, and if a high-ranking successor survives a potential event, that person becomes president. Acting Cabinet secretaries are eligible for succession if they are confirmed by the Senate for other positions, according to 2003 congressional testimony by John Fortier, executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission. But naturalized U.S. citizens, such as current Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Meyerkas, are ineligible to serve as president and therefore cannot be designated survivors.
Most designated survivors, like Raimondo, maintain a regular schedule while avoiding the Capitol for the president’s speech.
Raimondo said last year that her turn as a designated survivor was “quite unusual,” staying out of Washington “but doing my job like any other day.”
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