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About the President Pro Tempore | Historical Overview

The Constitution provides for two officers to preside over the Senate: the vice president and a president pro tempore. The vice president of the United States is designated as the president of the Senate. In this capacity, the vice president was expected to preside regularly over sessions of the Senate, casting votes only to break ties. From John Adams in 1789 to Richard Nixon in the 1950s, presiding over the Senate was the chief responsibility of the vice president.

Since vice presidents presided routinely in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Senate thought it necessary to choose a president pro tempore only for the limited periods when the vice president might be ill or otherwise absent. As a result, the Senate frequently elected several presidents pro tempore during a single session. At other times, with a vacancy in the vice presidency and no method for filling the position, presidents pro tempore would serve for longer periods.

In 1890 the Senate decided that presidents pro tempore would be elected not just for the period of the vice president's absence, but would hold the office continuously until the election of another president pro tempore. As a result, since 1890, with a single exception, each president pro tempore has served until he retired, died, or had the misfortune to see his party lose its majority. The first sentence of Rule I of today's Standing Rules of the Senate provides that the president pro tempore shall hold the office "during the pleasure of the Senate and until another is elected or his term of office as a Senator expires."

The responsibilities of the president pro tempore have changed a good deal over the past two centuries. Since 1816, presidents pro tempore have received a larger salary than other senators. For a period, they were compensated at the same rate as the vice president. Since March 1969, the salary of the president pro tempore has been the same as that of the majority and minority leaders.

On various occasions during the early 19th century, presidents pro tempore appointed members of the Senate's standing committees. Since 1820, presidents pro tempore have had the power to name other senators to perform the duties of the chair in their absence. In modern times, presidents pro tempore have tended to ask new members of the majority party to preside over the Senate, a practice that enables freshmen senators to grow more accustomed to the Senate's rules and procedures.

Election of a senator to the office of president pro tempore has always been considered one of the highest honors offered to a senator by the Senate. That honor has been bestowed upon a colorful and significant group of senators during the past two centuries.

Presidential Succession 

For much of the nation’s history, the president pro tempore has been included in the line of presidential succession. According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, should the offices of president and vice president both become vacant, the president pro tempore would have succeeded to the presidency, followed by the Speaker of the House. This line of succession remained in effect until 1886.

During this period, the fact that the Senate elected a president pro tempore only when the vice president was absent created a potential problem for presidential succession. Congress was customarily out of session for half of each year. What would happen if there were no designated president pro tempore in the unlikely event that both the president and vice president died or resigned while the Senate was out of session? Rather than settle these problems by statute or rules changes, the Senate for decades relied upon a procedure in which the vice president would voluntarily absent himself from the Chamber at the end of the session to enable the Senate to elect a president pro tempore, who would then be available to succeed to the presidency. Occasionally, some vice presidents who feared the political consequences of placing a senator opposed to the president’s policies in the line of succession refused to perform this courtesy. The resulting vacancies raised concerns about the ability of presidents pro tempore to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.

In 1886 Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts raised the issue of presidential succession and the lack of a permanent president pro tempore. On two occasions in the early 1880s, vacancies had existed in both the vice presidency and president pro tempore at the same time. Hoar called for a revision of the succession act. "The present arrangement is bad," he told the Senate, because "during a large portion of the term there is no officer in being who can succeed." Senator Hoar also argued that the Senate did not elect its presidents pro tempore based on any consideration of their fitness to become chief executive. The president pro tempore was typically a senior senator, chosen "for his capacity as a debater and a framer of legislation." Most likely, the president pro tempore would have "little or no executive experience." Hoar explained that no president pro tempore had ever served as president, and only one had even been a candidate for president. By contrast, six secretaries of state had been elected president. Following Hoar's reasoning, Congress in 1886 passed a new law that removed the president pro tempore and Speaker of the House entirely from the line of presidential succession, leaving at its head the secretary of state and the other cabinet members, all non-elected officials.

This remained the order of succession until 1947, when, at the urging of President Harry S. Truman, the law again was revised. Having served 10 years in the Senate, Truman held the post of vice president only 82 days before Franklin Roosevelt's death propelled him into the White House. Truman was troubled that the next person in the line of succession was his secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, with whom he disagreed over his stance on the Soviet Union. The secretary had never run for elective office. As Truman stated, "It was my feeling that any man who stepped into the presidency should have held at least some office to which he had been elected by a vote of the people." Two months after becoming president, Truman proposed restoring the president pro tempore and Speaker of the House to the line of succession.

An interesting feature of Truman's proposal was its reversal of the earlier order of succession, putting the Speaker of the House ahead of the president pro tempore. In his memoirs, Truman argued that the House Speaker, as an elected representative of his district, as well as the chosen leader of the "elected representatives of the people," should stand next in line to the vice president. Of course, one could make the same argument for the president pro tempore, as the elected official of the people of his state and of the United States Senate.

There may also have been an institutional factor in Truman's reversal of the roles. Between the 1886 removal of the president pro tempore from the order of succession and 1947, some entirely new leadership posts had evolved in the Senate: the majority and minority leaders and the party whips. Early in the 20th century, when the Democratic and Republican Parties first officially designated floor leaders, a number of influential men had been elected majority leader. By 1945 most Washington observers regarded the majority leader as the Senate's functional equivalent of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, while the president pro tempore had become more of a ceremonial office. Had Truman drawn a list of individuals, rather than offices, he would certainly have included Majority Leader Alben Barkley in the line of succession—indeed, in 1948, Truman chose Senator Barkley as his vice presidential running mate. For the purposes of legislation, however, the president recommended inclusion of a constitutionally created officer, the president pro tempore, rather than a party-designated officer, the majority leader. Today, the president pro tempore continues to follow the Speaker of the House in presidential succession, followed in turn by the secretary of state and the other cabinet secretaries in the order of their agencies' creation.