The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses the subject of presidential succession. It establishes procedures for filling presidential and vice-presidential vacancies in the event of disability, death, resignation, or removal. The states ratified the amendment on February 10, 1967. To explore this concept, consider the following 25th Amendment definition.
Definition of 25th Amendment
- An amendment to the U.S. Constitution that sets forth rules and procedures for presidential succession.
1967 Constitutional Amendment
What is the 25th Amendment?
The meaning of the 25th Amendment pertains to presidential disability and succession It gives clarity to long-standing issues concerning the death, disability, removal, or resignation of the president. Prior to this amendment, succession procedures did not exist for temporarily disabled presidents or vice-presidential vacancies. Each administration had handled its own succession, which led to chaos and confusion.
The 25th Amendment contains four key sections:
- Section 1 states that, if the president dies, resigns, becomes disabled, or is removed, the vice president becomes president.
- Section 2 grants the president power to nominate a vice president in case of a vice presidential vacancy. Both Houses of Congress must confirm the nomination with a majority vote.
- Section 3 allows the president to voluntarily transfer his powers to the vice president. The vice president serves as acting president until the president resume powers.
- Section 4 deals with situations where an incapacitated president cannot or will not voluntarily transfer his powers.
The administration experienced multiple 25th Amendment examples in the 1970s. In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, and President Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to succeed him. Following Section 2, both the Senate and House confirmed the nomination.
President Richard M. Nixon resigned the next year amid allegations of wrongdoing in what is known as the Watergate Scandal. Vice President Ford immediately succeeded him. President Ford then nominated Nelson A. Rockefeller as vice president and both houses confirmed.
Presidential Disability and Succession
Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment outlines a plan for presidential disability and succession. It allows the Vice President and presidential cabinet secretaries to declare a president incapacitated. This requires them to notify the Speaker of the House, and the President Pro Tempore in writing. Once they sign and send the notice, the Vice President immediately becomes acting President.
If the President disagrees, he can send his own message to the speaker and President Pro Tempore. In all 25th Amendment examples, if the President sends the message, he automatically resumes full power as President. Once the President disputes it, the vice president and the department secretaries have four days to disagree.
If they disagree, Congress must decide on the presidential disability and succession. Congress convenes almost immediately and decides with a two-thirds majority vote from each house within three weeks. If Congress finds the president unable to perform his duties, he must step aside. To date, there has not been any 25th Amendment examples in which this section needed revoked.
History of the 25th Amendment
The history of the 25th Amendment dates to the original Constitution when the founding fathers were rather ambiguous about presidential succession. The Constitution allowed for the vice president to become acting president if the president could not carry out his duties. However, it failed to mention who held the power to declare the president unfit. It also did not specify whether the Vice President would take office, or just assume presidential duties temporarily.
In 1841, the ambiguous history of the 25th Amendment became apparent when William Henry Harrison died about a month after inauguration. Vice President John Tyler assumed power and became President. In the years that followed, the vagueness of the Constitution became an issue several more times. For instance, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919 that left him incapacitated. He refused to resign, however, and Vice President Thomas Marshall declined the role as Acting President.
After the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became President, and the office of Vice President became vacant. With Johnson in poor health, and the Cold War’s nuclear threat, Congress finally realized the necessity of a succession amendment. The House and Senate agreed on the text of 25th Amendment within months of Kennedy’s death. Three-quarters of the states ratified it by February 10, 1967, and it became a part of the U.S. Constitution. Within just years of its ratification, the administration saw several examples of the 25th Amendment in use.
Presidential Succession Act
The Presidential Succession Act is a U.S. federal statute that ensures an uninterrupted line of presidential succession. Congress passed the initial act in 1792. It placed the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House in line of succession behind the Vice President.
In 1886, Congress revised the Act, removing them from the line of succession. It replaced them with members of the presidential cabinet in order of rank, starting with the Secretary of State. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman revised the Presidential Succession Act once more. He reinstated the President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House into the line of succession. However, he placed the speaker ahead of the President Pro Tempore.
The Presidential Succession Act provides the following line of succession:
- Vice President
- Speaker of the House of Representatives
- President Pro Tempore of the Senate
- Secretary of State
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Defense
- Attorney General
- Secretary of the Interior
- Secretary of Agriculture
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Secretary of Transportation
- Secretary of Energy
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- Secretary of Homeland Security
According to the Presidential Succession Act, the person in line of succession must meet the constitutional requirements for taking the office. If unable to do so, the next person in line takes office.
Purpose of the Presidential Succession Act
The purpose of the Presidential Succession Act was to create a line of presidential succession in the very real likelihood that a sitting President would become unable to serve. It establishes who exercises the powers and duties of the President if neither the President nor Vice President could do so.
The original Constitution was brief in its mention of presidential succession. It allowed the Vice President to become Acting President if the President resigned or died. However, it did not provide a contingency if the President was temporarily unable to perform presidential duties. The Act also failed to appoint someone to assume the vice presidency if the Vice President resigned, died, or became President. Instead, it called for Congress to select someone to act as President.
25th Amendment Example Involving President Donald Trump
With a presidency so unpredictable and controversial, there has been no shortage of rumors about removing Donald Trump from office. These rumors intensified after former FBI Deputy Director McCabe spoke about meetings in which officials discussed invoking the 25th Amendment.
At one point, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D – Massachusetts) urged senior administration officials to act. She stated that they had a constitutional responsibility to invoke the 25th Amendment if the President could not perform his duties responsibly. Many other political adversaries agree that this is the perfect example of the 25th Amendment and why the framers created it.
From the firing (or forced resignation) of anyone who seemed to disagree with him, including Cabinet members, the FBI Director, and other members of the Justice Department, to uncounted erratic tweets, Trump had left many believing he was psychologically unsound. However, unless Trump were to undergo examination by a team of unbiased mental health professionals, this would not be easy to prove.
Another hurdle would involve getting the Cabinet majority to agree to strip the President of power. With 22 members of Trump’s cabinet, 12 of them would have to agree, and so would Vice President Pence. Once Trump learned of the situation, he would likely fire his disloyal cabinet members, causing more turmoil.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
- Bill of Rights – The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
- Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- Disability – A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
- Majority – A number larger than half of the total.
- Scope – Relevant range of authority or practice, or range of control through a contract.