Pro Tempore

The term “pro tempore” is a term that is used to describe an individual who is acting locum tenens, or as a placeholder of sorts, when a superior is not present. Pro tempore translates to “for the time being,” which describes the length of time during which an individual acts in a particular role. For example, pro tempore senate presidents are senators who oversee the Senate when the Senate’s usual president is unable to do so. To explore this concept, consider the following pro tempore definition.

Definition of Pro Tempore


proh tem-puh-ree


  1. A term used to describe an individual who is serving in a particular role “for the time being,” while his superior is not present.


Mid-16th century          Latin (rescindere)

Senate Pro Tempore

The Senate President Pro Tempore is the Senator who is responsible for overseeing the operation of the U.S. Senate when the President of the Senate is not available. The U.S. Constitution names the Vice President of the United States as the President of the Senate, but allows the Senate itself to choose which member will be the Senate President Pro Tempore.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the practice has been for the Senate to elect the longest-serving Senator from the majority party to be the President Pro Tempore. Should anything happen to the President, the President Pro Tempore is considered to be the President’s third successor, following behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

President Pro Tempore

The President Pro Tempore heads up the Senate in the absence of the Vice President. However, the President Pro Tempore does not have the same power that the Vice President does. The President Pro Tempore is responsible for deciding disputes that come up over the course of normal Senate proceedings. Certain declarations, such as whether the President is fit to serve as declared by the 25th Amendment, are to be given to the President Pro Tempore via the Senate.

The Vice President, as the President of the Senate, can also cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. However, the President Pro Tempore is not provided with an additional vote beyond that which is granted simply for being a sitting Senator.

Pro Tempore Example Involving an Impeached President

A notable example of pro tempore in U.S. history occurred when President Andrew Johnson was impeached. Johnson became President after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. At the time, Benjamin Franklin Wade was acting as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and, as such, nearly became the acting President for the remainder of Johnson’s term. Normally, this wouldn’t be the case; however, Johnson had no Vice President, which meant that Wade would become President if anything happened to remove Johnson from the Presidency.

Wade was considered to be one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans, a political group within the Republican party that strongly believed that slaves should be freed, and that blacks should enjoy the same political rights and privileges that whites enjoyed. President Johnson, who was formerly associated with the Radicals, broke from the group and fought against these ideals, proving himself to be an unapologetic racist.

After the Republican-led Congress kept butting heads with Johnson in its efforts to improve race relations, Congress elected to impeach the Democratic Johnson. Johnson being impeached meant that Wade was next in line to take over. However, while most senators believed Johnson was guilty of the charges levied against him, he ultimately kept the presidency because the senators wanted nothing more than to keep Wade from taking over. This was because they believed that a Wade presidency would be even worse than a Johnson presidency.

In fact, one newspaper even wrote that Andrew Johnson was innocent only because “Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.” John Roy Lynch, an African-American who was elected to Congress during Reconstruction, discussed the situation in his book, Facts Concerning Reconstruction:

“It was believed by many at the time that some of the [moderate] Republican Senators that voted for acquittal [of Andrew Johnson] did so chiefly on account of their antipathy to the man who would succeed to the presidency in the event of the conviction of the [sitting] president. This man was Senator Benjamin Wade, of Ohio, President pro tempore of the Senate who as the law then stood, would have succeeded to the presidency in the event of a vacancy in the office from any cause. Senator Wade was an able man …

…He was a strong party man. He had no patience with those who claimed to be [Radical] Republicans and yet refused to abide by the decision of the majority of the party organization [as did Grimes, Johnson, Lincoln, Pratt, and Trumbull] … the sort of active and aggressive man that would be likely to make for himself enemies of men in his own organization who were afraid of his great power and influence, and jealous of him as a political rival. That some of his senatorial Republican associates should feel that the best service they could render their country would be to do all in their power to prevent such a man from being elevated to the Presidency…

… for while they knew he was an able man, they also knew that, according to his convictions of party duty and party obligations, he firmly believed he who served his party best served his country best…that he would have given the country an able administration is concurrent opinion of those who knew him best.”

This pro tempore example wasn’t the end of Wade’s name coming up as an individual to appoint to a specific political role. In 1868, presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant refused to appoint Wade as his vice-presidential running mate, despite being urged to do so by his fellow Republicans. After the conclusion of the 1868 elections, Wade returned to his law practice in Ohio.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Impeach – To call into question the integrity of, the holder of a public office, or to charge a public officer with misconduct.
  • Guilty – Culpable of, or responsible for, a specified wrongdoing.