State of the Union: What is a ‘designated survivor;’ how are they picked?

The designated survivor is generally chosen by the chief of staff.

President Joe Biden will deliver his third State of the Union address on Thursday in front of a joint session of Congress, but one cabinet member who is in the presidential line of succession won’t be attending.

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The “designated survivor,” a person chosen not to attend the speech, hasn’t been named as or early Thursday.

Why is someone given that designation and how does the process work? Here’s what we know about the process.

What is the designated survivor?

The designated survivor is a person chosen to remain physically away from a large gathering that includes the president, vice president and other high-ranking members of the federal government – like Thursday’s State of the Union speech – in case of an attack on that gathering.

The person chosen as designated survivor – generally a cabinet member – must be in the presidential line of succession, so should something happen to the president, someone would be ready to step up immediately to ensure the continuity of government, meaning someone will be in charge to direct the necessary functions of the federal government at all times.

The person must also be able, constitutionally, to assume leadership of the country. That means the person must be a naturally-born U.S. citizen, be at least 35 years or older, and have at least 14 years of residency in the United States.

How did the idea for a continuing line of leaders come about?

The process of replacing a president falls under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792. According to the act, if the president and the vice president were unable to serve (were killed, for instance), the Senate president pro tempore (the person who presides over the Senate when the vice president is not there) would be sworn in as president.

Should something happen to the president pro tempore, the person next in line to take over the reins of government would be the speaker of the House.

In 1886, the succession order was changed, switching the place of the president pro tempore with that of the speaker of the House. Members of the president’s cabinet were added to the line of succession at that time.

The order was changed once again in 1947. It was decided then that the cabinet members would be in line to assume the presidency by order of the date their offices were established.

That made the Secretary of State the first cabinet official on the list.

When did the practice of selecting a specific person to be the designated survivor start?

It was during the Cold War in the late 1950s that specific cabinet members were named as the designated survivors for particular events.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, congressional members devised their own version of a designated survivor. Should all the senators and representatives be killed, the designated survivors from the House and the Senate would become Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, respectively.

They would then be third and fourth in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president.

Here’s the current presidential line of succession:

  1. Vice President: Kamala Harris
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives: Mike Johnson
  3. President pro tempore of the Senate: Patty Murray
  4. Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
  5. Secretary of the Treasury: Janet Yellen
  6. Secretary of Defense: Lloyd Austin
  7. Attorney General: Merrick Garland
  8. Secretary of the Interior: Deb Haaland
  9. Secretary of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack
  10. Secretary of Commerce: Gina Raimondo
  11. Secretary of Labor: Julie Su
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services: Xavier Becerra
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Marcia Fudge
  14. Secretary of Transportation: Pete Buttigieg
  15. *Secretary of Energy: Jennifer Granholm
  16. Secretary of Education: Miguel Cardona
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Denis McDonough
  18. *Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas

*Neither Alejandro Mayorkas nor Jennifer Grandhom are naturally-born U.S. citizens, therefore neither could become president.

Who chooses the designated survivor?

Generally, the choice is made by the president’s chief of staff.

Who is this year’s designated survivor?

The designated survivor is not usually named until about an hour before the speech begins after they have been moved to a secure location.