In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
1: In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
2: 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.
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.
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.
The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, answers open questions about presidential succession.
What happens when the president dies in office?
Under Article II, if the president is removed, dies, resigns or is unable to perform his duties, these duties fall to the vice president (section 1, clause 6). Alexander Hamilton said a vice president “may occasionally become a substitute for the president” (Federalist 68). While this seems clear, the exact status of the vice president when taking on the president’s duties or acting as a “substitute” was not certain. When William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in 1841, Vice President John Tyler insisted on becoming the president rather than just an “acting president” as some urged. See Mark O. Hatfield, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (1997) at http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/john_tyler.pdf. All eight of the vice presidents who assumed the presidency on the death of the president followed this precedent. Section One of the 25th Amendment formalized the precedent, specifying that if the president is removed, dies or resigns “the Vice President shall become President.”
What happens if there is a vacancy in the vice presidency?
The eight times a president died in office and the vice president became president there was a vacancy in the vice presidency, as occurred also when seven vice presidents died in office and two resigned. See John D. Feerick, “Presidential Succession and Inability: Before and After the Twenty-Fifth Amendment” 79 Fordham Law Review 907, 943-944 (2010). The Congressional Research Service notes, “for some twenty percent of United States history there had been no Vice President to step up.” CRS Annotated Constitution, “Twenty-fifth Amendment” at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/pdf2002/043.pdf. Section Two of the 25th Amendment provides the solution for these instances by allowing the president to nominate individuals to fill vacancies in the vice presidency. The person nominated can take office when a majority of the House and Senate confirmed the nomination. Gerald Ford (in 1973) and Nelson Rockefeller (in 1974) became vice presidents following this procedure.
What happens if the president knows he or she cannot fulfill the duties of the presidency?
The Constitution did not specify the procedure to follow in the case of a president being incapacitated. If the president knows of the incapacitation beforehand, as in a planned medical procedure, section Three of the 25th Amendment allows the president to notify the President pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House that the Vice President will be Acting President during a period when the president cannot fulfill the duties of that office. When ready to resume the duties, the president notifies these same officials. President George W. Bush invoked this portion of the Amendment twice for routine medical procedures.
What happens when the president is incapacitated but cannot or will not step aside and let the vice president act as president?
Before his death by assassination, President James A. Garfield lived in a coma for eighty days. President Woodrow Wilson had a debilitating stroke a year and a half before the end of his final term. President Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced a heart attack and stroke while in office. See Calvin Bellamy, “Presidential Disability: The Twenty-Fifth Amendment Still an Untried Tool” 9 Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 373, 376-377 (2000). Until, the ratification of section four of the 25th Amendment there was no Constitutional direction for handling situations where the president could not function and could not or would not step aside. Now, 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” can notify legislative leaders of the president’s inability to fulfill the duties of the office and the vice president then begins acting as president. The president can resume office by notifying the legislative leaders that there is no inability. When the vice president (and the executive officials) disagree with the president about the president’s capacity and send dueling declarations to Congress, Congress decides the issue. Specifically, if 2/3 of members of Congress agree that the president is incapacitated, the vice president acts in the president’s stead, otherwise the president continues to function (and White House meetings are, no doubt, chilly).
William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.
Article II, Section 1, Clause
6: In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office,9 the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
This clause is the presidential succession clause, establishing procedures for dealing with the death, disability, resignation or removal of the President.
At first the clause appears rather straightforward. It declares that the Vice President is next in the line of succession, and that Congress can, by law, establish the remaining line of succession. However, upon further inspection, there are a few important issues that are not clearly resolved.
The Convention originally provided that the president of the Senate (which had not yet been determined to be the Vice President) would replace the President in the case of death, disability, resignation or removal. In late August Gouvernor Morris suggested replacing the president of the Senate with the Chief Justice. In early September the Convention settled on the Vice President.
The first issue is whether the Vice President becomes the President in such cases, or whether the Vice President merely becomes the acting President. This issue is important because if the VP merely becomes the acting President, he would be a temporary placeholder while a new President is selected. In fact, the clause suggests that a special election for President be called in the case of the President’s death, disability, resignation or removal, rather than the automatic ascension of the VP to the office. James Madison actually insisted upon the possibility of a special election for the President at the Convention.
The other ambiguity of the clause had to do with the issue of the President’s “disability.” As John Dickinson noted at the Constitutional Convention, “what is the extent of the term ‘disability’ & who is to be the judge of it?” If the Congress can declare the President to be disabled, the Constitution’s separation of powers would be subverted by basically giving the Congress the power to choose the President.
Both ambiguities were resolved by the Twenty-Fifth amendment, with an assist from John Tyler. When President William Henry Harrison passed away in 1841, Tyler boldly claimed that he was not merely the VP acting as President, but was the President for the remainder of Harrison’s elected term. By doing so he prevented the possibility that an election would be called to establish a new President (Harrison passed away very early in his term, a result of contracting pneumonia at his unusually long Inaugural Address.)
Tyler was criticized for this action, but his precedent has stood the test of time. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, passed in 1967, codifies the Tyler precedent by stating that “the Vice President shall become President” if the President is removed from office, resigns, or passes away. However, in the case of presidential disability (formally communicated to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate), the Vice President merely becomes “Acting President.”
Amendment XXV also cleared up the issue of presidential disability by creating a procedure for establishing the president’s disability. While the Tyler precedent helped ease the transition of power from President to VP in cases of death, resignation, or removal of the President, it also made VPs hesitate before assuming the presidency in the case of disability. This is because the Tyler precedent suggested that whenever a VP assumed the presidency, he became President in full, not just Acting President. Thus, if the President’s disability were cured, there would be a question whether the VP needed to revert back to his earlier position.
After President Garfield was shot in 1881, for example, he was incapacitated for eighty days, while his VP hesitated to assume the office in case Garfield would recover. The same issue occurred following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment established a protocol for determining whether a disability existed, and how the President could be restored to power after the disability is gone. It allows the President to declare himself disabled, and to resume the office when he formally declares that the disability has ended.
In situations where the President is unable (or unwilling) to declare himself disabled, the Vice President, along with a majority of the cabinet, is authorized to declare the disability. If the President disagrees with the decision of the VP and the cabinet, Congress has to resolve the disagreement.
The succession of the chief executive of the country is, thankfully, an issue that has not caused great discord in American politics. But the Framers were well aware that succession to the chief executive power, which was usually the throne, was an issue that had fractured societies for centuries. As with so many other important constitutional questions, the Framers refused to allow these issues to be settled by appeals to the sword. Rather, they established a framework for such contentious issues to be resolved by law, rather than arbitrary force or will.