Searches for the 25th amendment recently reached an all-time high, implying a particular interest in presidential impeachment.
The Constitution of the United States of America provides the foundation of how the government should operate. Written in 1787, some may argue that the constitution is outdated. However, it has proven to still be relevant over 229 years later. Now, more than ever, one amendment is under intense scrutiny by scholars and academies all over the world.
This discussion regarding the 25th amendment has come about due to increased talk about removing President Donald J. Trump from office.
Ratified on February 20, 1967, the 25th amendment was introduced to set forth succession rules to facilitate how the government will function in the event that the President or Vice President has become unable to discharge the duties of their office.
The 25th amendment has four sections; the first, second and fourth are most important in this discussion. The first explicitly states that in “case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President”. What is particularly unclear in the language of this section is the word devolve. What exactly would devolve to the Vice President? Is it the powers of the Presidency or the Office of the Presidency?
Article 3 allows the President to voluntarily transmit the powers of the Presidency to the Vice President. Interestingly, this has been used on three occasions, all of which were in regard to the acting President undergoing a medical operation. In all cases, power was restored to the President within a matter of hours.
Article 4 contains the most ambiguous language of all sections of the 25th amendment. It elaborates more on the first article, however, there is still no definition about what “inability” means. The fourth article describes procedures to remove the President from office in the event that he or she is unable to fulfill their constitutional roles, but cannot or will not voluntarily surrender the office. If this happens to be the case, the Vice President and the majority of the cabinet must make a decision to invoke Article 4 of the 25th amendment, or Congress may designate a group of officials to render a decision.
This college of officials has never been established as the fourth article has never been used. Removal from office in this manner is highly unlikely considering the cabinet is comprised of the President’s closest friends and associates. However, if the cabinet declares a President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” the Vice President immediately assumes acting powers of the Presidency. Immediately after removal, the President has the opportunity to declare himself capable, in that case, the body that removed the President has four days to disagree.
Now you may ask: why is there so much debate if the Constitution seems to clearly delineate procedures? It is the ambiguity of the language of the 25th amendment. In 1787, John Dickinson, a representative from Pennsylvania and a founding father, questioned what the definition of “disability” was and who shall be the judge of it. No response was recorded, hence that discussion has been left to those who must define it.
It is most likely that the definition of “inability” was only meant to be applied in very select situations. Its use as a method to impeach an unpopular President would probably be frowned upon by the founding fathers however that seems to be the path that is being taken. The writers of the constitution likely meant for the fourth article to be used if the President becomes severely ill, or is suffering mentally or physically from a disease that renders him incapable of making sound decisions, not unpopular decisions.
Regardless, the removal of a President due to him or her being unpopular by means of the 25th amendment will set a dangerous precedent that will rock the foundation of Democracy. Since Congress has the ability to establish a body to render a decision as to whether the President is competent or not, this responsibility could potentially be placed upon the shoulders of the people of the United States.