The story behind the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution begins with one of the saddest chapters in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The amendment was also influenced by the increasing capacity of medical technology. The situation raised the question of what the country would do if a president were in a coma, or in some other way alive, but incapable of fulfilling his duties. It addresses the actions that would be taken if the country needed to quickly replace a president who was not able to act.
It had always been clear that the vice president would assume the presidency if the president died in office. The speaker of the house and the president pro tempore of the Senate are next in line to take over if something happens to both the president and the vice president. The situation is less clear on the rights of the vice president if the president did not die, but could not serve. Furthermore, the law was not clear about what to do if the vice president died in office, and if the president could appoint someone to take over the position.
The 25th Amendment granted certain powers to the President of the United States, and to the chief officers of the executive branch, in addition to balancing power by giving deciding rights to the legislative branch (Congress). First off, if a vice president was incapacitated or died in office, the president had a right to appoint someone new to the office who would be confirmed by a voting majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It also made clear and implicit that the vice president was the natural successor to the president, and when taking office, he or she has the right to appoint a new vice president, who also must be confirmed by House and Senate. The president can, moreover, submit to Congress that he or she is unable to faithfully discharge his duties and resign from office, handing the presidency to the vice president.
The last section of the amendment also grants the vice president and Congress, or a majority of chief executives in the cabinet, the ability to remove a president from office if he or she is in some way incapable of fulfilling the job. The vice president and chief executives must submit a request to have the President of the United States removed from office, and both Senate and the House must vote on the measure. The president can only be removed if both the Senate and the House approve the request by a two-thirds majority.
Much has been made of this last section, mainly on a fictional basis. Movies like Air Force One and television shows like 24 and The West Wing have explored this fourth clause from a variety of angles for dramatic purpose. There have been few instances where this clause has ever even been considered, and no instances where it has actually been employed. President Richard Nixon used the provisions in the contained in the third section of the 25th Amendment to step down from office with his resignation.
What can be said of the amendment is that it aims to address emergency situations where a president might need to be removed from office. It also makes clear how someone taking over for the president is allowed to choose his or her successor. Though it’s a useful amendment, it’s not exactly one that the government or the American people would wish to see used.