The Constitutional Process for Replacing a President Who Lacks Capacity to Serve
The United States Constitution, as initially ratified, contains language addressing succession upon the removal, death, or resignation of a sitting president, or in the event the president cannot discharge the duties of the office. The specific language of Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, states that “the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.” That Clause also gives Congress legislative authority to “provide for a Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability.” When William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office, some confusion arose regarding the specific meaning of Clause 6:
- Does the word “devolve” mean that the vice president becomes the president, or that the vice president simply assumes the duties and powers of the president while remaining vice president?
- How is the office of vice president filled when a vice president becomes president? (It’s a little-known fact that prior to 1967, when a vice president became president, there was no vice president until the next general election.)
- What qualifies as an “inability” to discharge presidential powers and duties?
- How are questions of inability resolved?
Those same questions resurfaced seven more times—as seven presidents died before the end of their terms—until the 25th Amendment was adopted in 1967. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 left legislators with significant concerns about succession and competency, particularly in light of the fact that Kennedy’s replacement, Lyndon Johnson, had previously suffered a heart attack, and the next two people in the line of succession were 71 and 86 years old, respectively. Congress passed a prospective constitutional amendment in July 1965 and sent it to the states for ratification. On February 10, 1967, Nevada became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, meeting the requirements to officially amend the U.S. Constitution.
The Provisions of the 25th Amendment
The first two sections of the 25th Amendment clarify the succession in the event the office of President or Vice President becomes vacant.
Under Section 1, if the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office, the vice president becomes President.
According to Section 2, if the office of the vice president becomes vacant, the president has the right to nominate someone to be the new vice president. That nomination must be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress.
Under Section 3 of the Amendment, a president may voluntarily transfer his power and duties to the vice president through a written declaration of his inability to perform his duties. In such a situation, the vice president does not become president but only assumes the authority of the president. The president stays in office but has no power or authority until declaring in writing that he/she is again competent and capable of discharging his or her duties. To date, Section 3 has been invoked three times—once during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and twice during the presidency of George W. Bush. All were invoked because of impending medical procedures.
Under Section 4, the powers and duties of the president may be transferred to the vice president without the request by or consent of the president. To do so, the vice president and a majority of Cabinet officers (or any other body that Congress may establish by law) must submit a written declaration to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, stating that the president is unable to discharge the duties and powers of the office. If that happens, the vice president becomes acting president. The president may subsequently submit a letter stating that no disability exists, in which case the vice president and Cabinet officers (or other such body) may resubmit the original declaration. Resubmittal must occur within four days. If the declaration is resubmitted, the matter must be decided by Congress. A finding that the president is incapable of performing the duties of the office requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.
Section 4 of Clause 6 has never been invoked. The current procedure under Clause 6 makes it highly unlikely that a president could be forcibly removed for political reasons, as it requires involvement of the vice president (of the same party as the president) and Cabinet officers appointed by the president.
The Importance of the 25th Amendment Today
Legislators have expressed concerns related to the 25th Amendment in response to President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives seeking to create a bipartisan committee of outside experts who would evaluate a president’s mental and physical health and render an opinion regarding his or her ability to conduct the duties of the office. Though the measure was introduced by Democrats during the presidency of a Republican, leading Democrats say the bill is not specifically directed at Trump. They note that a version of the bill was introduced before Trump’s positive coronavirus diagnosis and would apply only to future presidencies. Sponsors of the bill insist that the potential ravages of COVID-19, and the potential specter of a Chief Executive on a ventilator or in a coma, make it an issue that needs to be discussed and resolved.