A new resolution introduced in the House of Representatives urges Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to make Donald Trump submit to a physical and mental health exam over concerns that he is unfit to perform his duties as President. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California writes, “President Donald J. Trump has exhibited an alarming pattern of behavior and speech causing concern that a mental disorder may have rendered him unfit and unable to fulfill his constitutional duties…”
Lofgren’s resolution urges the Vice President and the President’s Cabinet to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is a rarely used amendment whose necessity became clear as far back as 1841 when Vice President John Tyler took over as Acting President for President William Harrison, who died of pneumonia just 31 days into office. As there was no legal procedure in place for how to transfer power in such an instance, and some argued that Tyler was not authentically President, Congress had some tough considerations, says Remi Alli, J.D., an expert in health law. “That’s when they created the hierarchy of who takes over if a president dies in office,” she tells Second Nexus. Among other things, the 25th Amendment allows the vice president and a majority of cabinet members to jointly remove the president from office and replace him with the vice president.
The necessity for the 25th Amendment was further impressed upon Congress on October 2, 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson awoke with symptoms concurrent with brain stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed on the left side and blind in his right eye, according to PBS. Unable to fully participate in his role, the government was left in a legal void, as there was not a constitutional answer for what to do when an acting President could not fulfill his duties, but was not dead. While impeachment was always an option for removal of a president, it was considered “in poor taste” to impeach a president who had not engaged in the “high crimes and misdemeanors component of impeachment, according to an explanatory video by Senior Fellow John Hudak of the Brookings Institute.
However, the amendment, formally proposed in 1965, still wasn’t ratified until 1967. Cliston Brown, a political analyst and columnist for the New York Observer explains that it was likely spurred by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “It became clear after the Kennedy assassination that there was a weakness in the law. If Kennedy had been merely wounded or left brain dead, there were no laws in place where the Vice President could have assumed the powers of the presidency. We would have been without a president,” he tells Second Nexus.
Congress took it upon itself to legalize the process of transferring power if the president is not dead but also not able to discharge the duties of his office, Brown says.
The 25th Amendment is divided into four sections:
Sections 1 and 2:
These deal with succession in the case of “the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation,” but it also applies in the event of a vice presidential vacancy. “Before 1967, the office of Vice President was vacant 16 times due to deaths, resignations, and assumptions of the President’s office,” according to the Constitution Daily, a constitutional blog maintained by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. This section was first invoked in October 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and transferred power to Gerald Ford as the new Vice President. Ford then used it to nominate Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President, after Nixon’s resignation.
The most commonly invoked of all the sections of the 25th is section 3. “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.”
It has been used most often in scenarios where a president is undergoing surgery. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all invoked it, giving their vice presidents power as Acting Presidents while they went under sedation and the knife.
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