In America, we cherish our milestones, and 2017 promises to be full of important historical anniversaries for all of us to enjoy. Already this year we’ve celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first U.S. troops to arrive in Europe to fight in World War II, without whom we’d have never been able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Super Bowl. Later this year, we’ll commemorate such occasions as the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, 100 years of a National Hockey League and 50 years of human heart transplants.
That’s quite a bit of hullabaloo! So much so that it’s important we don’t lose sight of an important historical milestone we’re hitting today: the 50th anniversary of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Are you excited? You should be! It’s so great to have the good old 25th Amendment, you guys.
And it’s something we don’t herald often enough. Much like a concert piano tuner or an Office of Government Ethics, we don’t often notice the work that the 25th Amendment does because it really only receives attention when something is going wrong. But the 25th Amendment ― which was proposed by Congress on July 6, 1965, and finally ratified on Feb. 10, 1967, thanks to Minnesota and Nevada ― has been quietly operating in the background, adding stability to our nation for half a century.
Great job, 25th Amendment!
As you might know, the 25th Amendment deals exclusively with presidential succession and has codified a set of procedures to follow in case the office of the president becomes vacant or the president is unable to do the job.
These were all things that the Constitution endeavored to address in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 ― but after many decades of experience, lawmakers came to believe that something more specific was necessary. For example, history buffs might remember how Edith Wilson kind of took over the presidency for a time after President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. And “Drunk History” buffs might remember Courteney Cox playing Edith Wilson.
I mean, can a woman even be president? It still seems uncertain to this day, sometimes! But this is precisely why more guidance was needed. And in the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination, Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) took up the task of creating a Constitutional amendment that would finally spell out the succession process and how a president could be deemed incapacitated. Of all the things Birch Bayh fathered, the 25th Amendment was definitely not the worst.
Here is the text of the 25th Amendment, in all its glory:
Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 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.
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.
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.
Pretty great, huh? Definitely a vast improvement on what the Constitution originally offered, in terms of guidance.
Now, there’s one part of the amendment that’s never been invoked: Section 4. That’s the part where 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” may ― if their judgment leads them to make the decision ― let Congress know that the president is unable to perform the duties of his office. As you can see from the text above, this might touch off a back-and-forth between the president and the vice president, all of which could end up with Congress making the final decision about whether the president should be removed.
What sort of impairment would lead to an invocation of Section 4? The amendment is rather vague on the subject. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was in surgery after John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt, it might have been invoked. Bayh argued that it should have been invoked in a 1995 editorial in The New York Times.
The only other time when anyone flirted with invoking Section 4 came in 1987, on the weekend when Howard H. Baker Jr. replaced Donald Regan as Reagan’s White House chief of staff. The matter was briefly addressed in a PBS “American Experience” documentary about Reagan:
Howard Baker, chief of staff (archival): I will be on the job Monday. Full time. And, in the meantime, Jim Cannon and Tom Griscom will be my transition team.
Narrator: What Baker’s transition team was told by Don Regan’s White House staff that weekend shocked them. Reagan was “inattentive,” “inept” and “lazy,” and Baker should be prepared to invoke the 25th Amendment to relieve him of his duties.
Edmund Morris, official biographer: The incoming Baker people all decided to have a meeting with him on the Monday morning, their first official meeting with the president, and to cluster around the table in the Cabinet Room and watch him very, very closely to see how he behaved, to see if he was indeed losing his mental grip. They positioned themselves very strategically around the table so they could watch him from various angles, listen to him and check his movements, and listen to his words and look into his eyes. And I was there when this meeting took place. And Reagan, who was, of course, completely unaware that they were launching a death watch on him, came in stimulated by the press of all these new people and performed splendidly. At the end of the meeting they figuratively threw up their hands realizing he was in perfect command of himself.
Howard Baker, chief of staff (archival): Ladies and gentlemen, is this president fully in control of his presidency? Is he alert? Is he fully engaged? Is he in contact with the problems? And I’m telling ya, it’s just one day’s experience and maybe that’s not enough, but today he was superb.
While the amendment offers only vague guidance, clearly there is precedent for considering a Section 4 invocation if there are worries about the president’s mental fitness.
So, it’s good to have the 25th Amendment around when people have misgivings about a president’s mental fitness. Can you imagine having these kind of concerns? Hey, don’t worry. Maybe it’s nothing. But if there is just cause for apprehension, it’s great to have the 25th Amendment around.
Think about it like this: The 25th Amendment, like the rest of the Constitution, is with us at all times. Why, it’s practically right there in the room with you. You wouldn’t want to forget that it was right there in front of you when you need it, would you? Of course not.
So, let’s celebrate the birthday of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, a quiet and stabilizing friend to this nation. What’s the best way to show your appreciation? I’m not sure. But it seems to me that when you turn 50, the best gift you can receive is to just feel appreciated, useful and wanted.
Maybe someone should reach out to the 25th Amendment today!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.