Congress

Rick Perry named ‘designated survivor’ for State of the Union address

Former Texas governor once advocated abolition of federal agency he now heads

Energy Secretary Rick Perry was this year’s “designated survivor” during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Energy Secretary Rick Perry will be this year’s “designated survivor” for President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. 

The macabre but important ritual keeps one cabinet-level official out of sight on State of the Union night and out of harm’s way. The idea is that in the event of a horrific disaster or attack on the prime-time event, a clear line of presidential succession is maintained. With members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, the cabinet and joint chiefs of staff all in one room, one person is hidden away in a secure location to ensure that government can continue if the worst were to happen.

The practice of designating a survivor isn’t laid out in the Constitution, but the presidential line of succession is covered in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act. But neither requires the sequestration of officials.

Perry, Texas’ second-longest-serving governor, was a onetime political rival to Trump. He made two unsuccessful bids for the Republican nomination for president, in 2012 and 2016. 

During the GOP presidential primary in 2011, he got some unwanted attention when he couldn’t remember all three of the federal agencies he said he wanted to abolish if he made it to the White House. (He remembered Commerce and Education. His third choice —Energy — came to him a bit later.)

At his confirmation hearing in 2017, Perry said he regretted recommending the elimination of the Energy Department.

Watch: SOTU: A brief history

The modern practice of selecting a designated survivor emerged during the Cold War, when specific cabinet members were named designated survivors. Follow the 9/11 attacks, Congress devised its own version of the 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.

The person chosen as designated survivor — generally a cabinet member — must be in the line of presidential succession as laid out by the Presidential Succession Act and the following acts that amended the original. That means that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao can’t be the designated survivor, because as a naturalized citizen, she is ineligible for the presidency. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker also can’t be the survivors, because they have not been confirmed by the Senate.

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