Procedures to oust a president

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified Feb. 10, 1967, fills a lacuna left by the Framers of the Constitution and subsequent members of Congress for nearly 200 years: how to fill a vacancy in the vice-presidency and how to provide for succession in office in case of the incompetence of a president.

When the ninth president, William Henry Harrison, died after just one month in office, it was not universally recognized that the vice president would become president in his own right or whether he would be just acting president. John Tyler settled that issue by proclaiming himself president with no limitation, and was accepted as such.

Nonetheless, there were frequent periods in which there was no vice president, either because of his succession to the presidency (1841-45, 1850-53, 1865-69, 1881-85, 1901-05, 1923-25, 1945-49, 1963-65), because of the vice president’s death (1812-13, 1814-17, 1853-57, 1875-77, 1885-89, 1899-1901, 1912-13) or due to his resignation (1832-33).

The amendment was passed by both houses of Congress in 1965, when memory was fresh of the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, which left as the next two individuals in line of presidential succession, according to statute, 71-year-old Speaker John McCormack and 86-year-old Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden.

Section 2 of the 25th Amendment provides that in case of a vacancy in the office of vice president, “the President shall nominate a Vice-President, who shall take office by a confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.” This provision was invoked after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973, as President Richard Nixon nominated Representative Gerald Ford, and after the resignation of Nixon in 1974, as Ford nominated former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; both were confirmed by majorities of both the Senate and House.

Section 3 of the 25th Amendment provides that when a president transmits to the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate a written declaration that he is unable to perform the duties of office, they shall by discharged “by the Vice President as Acting President.” This provision has been used when presidents undergo full anesthetic for medical procedures.

Section 4, providing for the Vice President to immediately assume “the powers and duties of the office as Acting President” under certain presumably rare circumstances. They are described in these words: “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.” It goes on to provide that the president can resume exercising his powers by written declaration unless that above-mentioned officials transmit a written declaration to the contrary within four days and, after that, if Congress does not vote by a two-thirds majority that the president is incapable of discharging his duties. This represents an attempt, as yet untested, to provide a procedure to oust a president who is widely, and presumably on a bipartisan basis, considered unable to function in office.