25th AmendmentUpdated: December 23, 2022
What is the 25th Amendment? This addition to the United States Constitution was deemed necessary in the wake of two separate issues in the White House; the poor health of President Dwight Eisenhower who had major heart attacks while in office, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Before the 25th Amendment there was no official plan for succession in the event a president became unable or unfit to serve and this Amendment establishes a specific procedure should it be required due to illness, disability, or other inability to fulfill the duties of the office.
Simply put, the 25th Amendment governs the procedures related to what the federal government must do in times where rules for Presidential disability and succession are required. The 25th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1965, and ratified in 1967.
Basics Of The 25th Amendment
The 2th Amendment is broken into four numbered sections which all address separate issues. These issues include the chain of succession if the President dies or resigns.
It also includes the rules for dealing with a vacancy left in the Vice Presidency, what to do if the President voluntarily notifies the House and Senate that the President is unable to perform the duties of the office. It also dictates the process in the event that the Vice President and the House and Senate determine the President is unable to fulfill the duties of the office.
25th Amendment Section By Section
The full text of the first section of the 25th Amendment is quite clear and direct. It reads as follows:
“In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
When discussing federal law, procedural requirements, and related issues, lawmakers rely on the specific content and intent of the text which means the above is written in such a way as it cannot be interpreted; the law must be implemented as directed. Note the first section ONLY addresses death or resignation. No other scenarios in this section are possible as it is currently written.
Here’s another short, simple, and not-subject-to-interpretation rule governing the law of succession and what to do in the event of a vacancy–in this case it’s the Vice Presidency. The full text is as follows:
“Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”
This more elaborate section (by comparison) essentially spells out what must happen if the President voluntarily submits to the House and Senate that they cannot fulfil the duties of the office. This, as you’ll read below, must be done in writing and a similar declaration in writing is required in order to undo the first declaration in writing. The full text reads:
“Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”
Notice the precise wording of this section and the implications therein. The Vice President is meant to act in this context as a temporary head of state and at no time is this meant to be a long-term, permanent promotion to President. Instead, this role exists as-needed and until the President submits the second written notification that they are again fit for duty.
Another thing worth noting; the language of the procedure here which implies that the President, in notifying the House and Senate in writing, may be submitting such notification ahead of a known issue such as a surgery, treatment, etc.
Make no mistake, this is purely inference and nowhere in the 25th Amendment do we get confirmation of this observation. But in light of Section 4, this isn’t an unreasonable conclusion to draw.
The longest and most elaborate section of the 25th Amendment, and some would add “rightfully so” here as this is the section that addresses the procedure required when the Vice President and the House/Senate submit in writing that the President is unable to fulfill their duties.
The Vice President is required to have a majority of “either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” in order to “transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration” that the President is unable to perform. In such cases the Vice President is named Acting President.
Again, this is a temporary appointment and not meant as a permanent replacement.
This is the place where the 25th Amendment gets confusing for some. The confusion lies in the wording of the next lines–some may be looking for more specific information from Section 4 including lists of the circumstances that may require its use.
But the 25th does not address the whys of Presidential Succession, it only addresses the procedures required and leaves the causes out.
This section explains that the President is responsible for providing the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House “his written declaration that no inability exists”.
Upon doing so, the President is permitted to “resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
You read that correctly–the President can declare themselves fit for duty again and it would be up to the Vice President and the House/Senate to respond with another written declaration contradicting the President’s letter.
What is the timetable for this part of the process? Congress is required by the 25th Amendment to decide within 48 hours “for that purpose if not in session”.
Section 4 adds that if Congress (within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration or if not in session within 21 days after Congress assembles) must determine by a two-thirds vote in both Houses that the President remains unable to perform the duties required.
If there is a 2/3rd majority in favor, the Vice President “shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President”. If the vote is not in favor of the Vice President, the President “shall resume the powers and duties of his office”.
It is crucial to note that in no part of the 25th Amendment do we find references to punitive measures or any description of the reasons the President may be unable to perform the duties of the office. It simply addresses the process required should the declaration be made.
As mentioned above, there are no instructions or provisions for specific causes of Presidential incapacity. This is the part of the 25th Amendment most subject to interpretation as this issue is not addressed directly in the text of the Amendment.
What You Should Know About The 25th Amendment
Nowhere in the 25th Amendment will you find a provision for the permanent removal of the President of the United States. Of all four sections of the Amendment, Section 4 was never invoked in the 20th Century. Use of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment requires the express participation of the Vice President.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News