Amendment XXV, Section 4:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, 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 discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall 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. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
Section 4 is the only part of the 25th amendment which has never been invoked. It was created especially to empower the Vice President, together with a majority of the Cabinet or of “such other body as Congress may by law provide”, to declare when necessary that the President of the United States is disabled. This would occur by formally submitting a written declaration to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Upon its delivery, the Vice President would become Acting President.
Section 4 is meant to be invoked if Vice President and the Cabinet determine that the President’s incapacitation prevents him from discharging the duties of his office and the President does not voluntarily proffer a written declaration to that effect.
Since this provision may involve a conflict between the President and the rest of his administration there are safeguards to prevent the invocation occurring unfairly. Therefore, the President may resume exercising his Presidential duties in response to the Vice President’s declaration by sending a written declaration to the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House explaining that he is able to assume his duties.
It is only then that if the Vice President and Cabinet remain unsatisfied with the President’s condition, they may within four days submit another declaration to the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tempore that the President is incapacitated.
If this occurs, Both Houses of Congress must assemble within 48 hours if not already in session to make a determination. Within 21 days of assembling or of receiving the second declaration by the Vice President and the Cabinet, a two-thirds vote of each House of Congress is required to affirm the President as unfit. Upon this finding by the Congress, Section 4 states that the Vice President would “continue” to be Acting President.
Should the Congress resolve the issue in favor of the President, or if the Congress makes no decision within the 21 days allotted, then the President would “resume” discharging all of the powers and duties of his office.
If for some reason the Congress sides with the President yet the Vice President and Cabinet determine later that the President is incapacitated, the Vice President can continue to invoke Section 4. The President could send a declaration stating that he is capable of handling his duties and presumably the allotted 21-day Congressional procedure would start again..
History notes that there have been at least two occasions where there was serious consideration of invoking Section 4. The first involved the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan. A group of Presidential advisors gathered at his bedside following his surgery and in conjunction with the doctors findings, determined that he was competent to carry on the affairs of state. The second occasion also involved President Reagan.
Late in his term, President Reagan replaced his chief of staff – Donald Regan – with Howard Baker. Howard Baker was pressed according to media reports to make an assessment as to whether President Reagan then 76 was “mentally sharp.” After holding a meeting with the President and the rest of his staff, Baker easily concluded that President Reagan was capably handling his duties as President.
Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and the Director of the Center for Law and Regulation at the Institute for Liberty
June 8, 2012