October 18 – Our Government: Presidential Succession

The 25th Amendment

Vital Sign Religious Freedom

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for presidential disability and succession. It took an American tragedy to bring about this constitutional amendment—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His death caused moments of chaos in the federal government on that fateful day in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was in the same motorcade as the president, and early rumors reported that he was also wounded.  

Congress had already been working on the need for constitutional clarification on presidential succession and the sudden passing of President Kennedy accelerated their determination. Technically, the Constitution never spelled out how a  vice president would become president if a president died, resigned, or was unable to perform the duties of the office. 

In 1841, that oversight by the founders became apparent. Newly elected President William Henry Harrison died about a month after his inaugural. Vice President John Tyler, in a bold move, settled the debate about succession. Yet Congress was unsure what powers Tyler had and what he should be called—acting president, president, or vice president. The then-vice president settled the debate by asking the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Circuit to administer him the presidential oath of office. 

In the years that followed, presidential successions happened as six more presidents died. The “Tyler Precedent” held in those transitions. 

In 1947, Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman. It provided for an extensive line of succession: after the Vice President would be the Speaker of the House, then President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior and on through the cabinet in the order that those offices were established. 

In 1963, the Senate committee that considered constitutional amendments was led by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana. Senator Estes Kefauver, who preceded him, had died, but Kefauver had started the process on such an amendment after President Eisenhower became ill in the 1950s. Bayh tried to get a version of the Kefauver amendment approved in Congress after Kennedy’s death but failed. However, with pressure on Congress from President Lyndon Johnson, the amendment passed in July 1965. It needed ratification by two-thirds of the states, and that occurred in February 1967, making the 25th Amendment the law of the land. 

During President Trump’s administration, there were calls for invoking Section IV of the 25th Amendment which provided that the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could declare the president unfit for office. If such a thing had happened, the vice president and Cabinet majority would transmit the information to Congress that the president was incapacitated, and the powers of the president would have transferred to Vice President Mike Pence. Within the complications of the amendment, however, the president could notify Congress that he is no longer incapacitated, and once again the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could run through the same procedure. At that point, the decision of presidential incapacity would rest with Congress, who would debate and if a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate agreed that the president was incapacitated, the powers of the president would then transfer to the vice president. 

Rather than going through the 25th Amendment procedure, Congress opted to seek impeachment to attempt to remove the president from office. Two such trials were held, but President Trump was not removed from his office. 

The 25th Amendment has been used for succession six times. Section I has been used once, when President Nixon resigned before the House could vote on whether to impeach him over Watergate, and Vice President Ford became President. Section II has been used twice, first when Vice President Agnew resigned and President Nixon named Gerald Ford; and again when Ford became president and the vice presidency was vacant, President Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president. 

Presidents have used Section III three times. Each time, they have given power to their vice presidents for a short time because they needed to be anesthetized for medical tests or surgery: Ronald Reagan in 1985, and George  W. Bush twice in 2007. Though it has been considered, Section IV has not yet been used. 

A September 28, 2022, article in the Washington Free Beacon asked whether the 25th Amendment should be employed on President Joe Biden, noting his cognitive decline, saying he is “not well.” It is questionable that his Cabinet and Vice President Harris would move to declare that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” 

Nothing like the 25th Amendment exists in the Bible. Leaders, particularly kings, were culturally to be the first son of the departing king. King David did not follow the tradition, however, when he named his son Solomon, passing over Adonijah, the “natural heir to the throne” (1 Kings 1:28-53). However, David said the choice was God’s, “And of all my sons (for the Lord has given me many sons), he has chosen Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel” (1 Chronicles 28:5). 

How then should we pray? 

  • For the president, vice president, and secretaries in the Cabinet as the president’s fitness for duty is assessed.
  • For the health of the president and the wisdom of the White House physician and others who may attend him. 
  • For discernment for President Biden as he evaluates his well-being and capacity to fulfill the obligations of chief executive.
  • For Vice President Harris to be prudent in her role as second in the executive office. 
  • For members of Congress as they provide oversight to the executive branch and federal agencies.

See previous Pray 7 daily featured readings.

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