How the 25th Amendment actually works — and what nobody’s ever figured out

Chris Geidner reports: Before he agreed to become White House chief of staff in 1987, Howard Baker Jr. had a request for a longtime aide of his. Baker, a retired senator, asked James Cannon to assess the state of affairs inside the White House.

The presidency of Ronald Reagan was in “chaos,” Cannon wrote to Baker. Aides told him that Reagan was “inattentive and inept.”

Cannon’s first recommendation, as reported in a 1988 book and confirmed by Cannon himself soon after, was shocking.

“Consider the possibility that section four of the 25th Amendment might be applied,” wrote the aide, who had worked previously as a senior policy adviser to President Gerald Ford.

The 25th Amendment was added to the US Constitution in 1967. Compared to some amendments, it might seem a little obvious or procedural, but the 25th Amendment was the long-belated response to more than a century of crises, and some of America’s darkest and most chaotic moments, dealing with one simple question: What do we do if something is wrong with the president? The amendment has four parts. The first two codify what happens if the president or vice president die or otherwise leave office (the vice president becomes president, and the president can nominate a new vice president, respectively). The third outlines how the president can temporarily hand over power to the vice president.

The fourth section — never used in the 50 years since it was adopted — gives the vice president and cabinet the power to declare that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” It is heavily weighted in favor of the president’s ability to serve, enabling the president to force a congressional vote on the issue — a vote that would take two-thirds of both houses of Congress to keep the president out of power. In short, it’s a complicated and rigorous process that would require many elected and appointed officials to agree the president was unfit. [Continue reading…]

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