Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution

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The Twenty-fifth Amendment (Amendment XXV) to the United States Constitution says that if the President becomes unable to do their job, the Vice President becomes the President. This can happen for just a little while, if the President is just sick or disabled for a short time. It could also happen until the end of the President's term (his time in office), if the President died, resigned, or lost his job.

The Twenty-fifth Amendment also says what should happen if there is a "vacancy" in the Vice President's office (meaning there is no Vice President).

The United States Congress ratified (approved) the Amendment on February 10, 1967.

Background[change | change source]

Article Two, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution says:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.[1]

This means that if the President is fired, dies, resigns, or is unable "to discharge [his] Powers and Duties" (unable to do the things a President has to do), the Vice President will take over his job. The Vice President will do the President's job until he gets better (if he is just sick or disabled), or until the next Presidential election (if the President resigned or is dead). If neither the President or the Vice President can do the President's job, Congress can decide who takes over the President's job. This is all the Constitution says about this subject.[1]

This clause was not very specific. It did not say:[1]

  • Who had the power to say a President was unable to do his job
  • Whether the Vice President would actually become President if he had to take over, or would just be "Acting President" (someone who did the President's job, but never got the title of "President")
  • Who would take the Vice President's job if he died, resigned, could not do his job, or had to take over for the President
  • How (or who) in Congress should decide who would take over if neither the President or the Vice President could do the President's job


In 1841, the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, became the first United States President to die in office. Before this, Representative John Williams had suggested that the Vice President should become Acting President if the President died.[2] Also, after Harrison died, his Cabinet had met and decided that Vice President John Tyler would become "Vice-President Acting President."[3] However, Tyler did not like this idea. He announced that he had become the President, and was not just doing the old President's job. He refused to look at any papers that were addressed to him as "Acting President."[4]

Tyler took the Presidential Oath, moved into the White House, and took over all of the old President's powers. Nobody formally challenged Tyler's claim to the Presidency. Eventually, both Houses of Congress passed a resolution saying that Tyler was the tenth President of the United States. This created "the precedent of full succession."[5] A precedent is a rule or law that might be followed in the future if a similar situation came up again. "Full succession" means that the Vice President would become the President, not Acting President, if the actual President died. The "precedent of full succession" became known as the "Tyler Precedent."

At other times, Presidents did not die, but they were unable to do their jobs because of illness. For example, during his Presidency, Woodrow Wilson had a stroke. However, the First Lady, Edith Wilson, and the official White House doctor kept the stroke a secret.[6][7] Because of this, no one took over the Presidency, even though Wilson could not do the job at that time.

Before the 25th Amendment, the office of Vice President had been empty eighteen times because the Vice President died, resigned, or had to take over for the President.[8] For example, there was no Vice President for nearly four years after Franklin D. Roosevelt died.[8]

These problems made it clear that the government needed more specific rules.

Kennedy assassination[change | change source]

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered. Kennedy's assassination made it very clear to Congress that they needed to figure out a solution about presidential succession right away. The United States was in the middle of the Cold War.[9] The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had once had a heart attack.[10] The next two people in line for the presidency were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John McCormack[11] (who was 71 years old),[12] and the President pro tempore of the Senate, Carl Hayden[11] (who was 86 years old).[13] Congress started moving more quickly.

Proposals[change | change source]

Senator Birch Bayh wrote the Senate version of the Twenty-fifth Amendment

Members of Congress suggested two different amendments to fill in the details missing from Clause 6.

The Keating–Kefauver Proposal suggested allowing Congress to make a law about who should decide when a President is disabled.[14] It was proposed in 1963 by Senator Kenneth Keating of New York,[15]p. 345 and supported by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver.[15]p. 28 However, other Senators were worried that Congress could abuse this power, or would not actually make the law after the amendment was passed.[14][15]pp. 30–35

The Bayh–Celler Proposal ended up becoming the Twenty-fifth Amendment.[16] On January 6, 1965, Senator Birch Bayh proposed the amendment in the United States Senate, and Representative Emanuel Celler (Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) proposed it in the United States House of Representatives.[16] Unlike the Keating–Kefauver Proposal, it suggested a way to fill the Vice President's position if it was empty, and also set out rules for how a President could be declared "disabled."[14][15]pp. 348–350

On February 19, 1965, the Senate passed the amendment. However, the House passed a different version of the amendment on April 13.[a][18] The House and Senate had to form committees to figure out a version of the amendment they could all agree on.[18] On July 6, 1965, both Houses of Congress passed the final version of the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.[19]

Ratification[change | change source]

For the Twenty-fifth Amendment to be added to the Constitution, three-fourths of the state legislatures (38 out of the 50) would have to ratify the Amendment.[17] It took almost two years for 38 states to ratify the Amendment. After the Amendment was added to the Constitution, another nine states ratified it. Three states never did.[20]

The states ratified the Amendment in this order:[20]

Order State Date Order State Date
1 Nebraska July 12, 1965 2 Wisconsin July 13, 1965
3 Oklahoma July 16, 1965 4 Massachusetts August 9, 1965
5 Pennsylvania August 18, 1965 6 Kentucky September 15, 1965
7 Arizona September 22, 1965 8 Michigan October 5, 1965
9 Indiana October 20, 1965 10 California October 21, 1965
11 Arkansas November 4, 1965 12 New Jersey November 29, 1965
13 Delaware December 7, 1965 14 Utah January 17, 1966
15 West Virginia January 20, 1966 16 Maine January 24, 1966
17 Rhode Island January 28, 1966 18 Colorado February 3, 1966
19 New Mexico February 3, 1966 20 Kansas February 8, 1966
21 Vermont February 10, 1966 22 Alaska February 18, 1966
23 Idaho March 2, 1966 24 Hawaii March 3, 1966
25 Virginia March 8, 1966 26 Mississippi March 10, 1966
27 New York March 14, 1966 28 Maryland March 23, 1966
29 Missouri March 30, 1966 30 New Hampshire June 13, 1966
31 Louisiana July 5, 1966 32 Tennessee January 12, 1967
33 Wyoming January 25, 1967 34 Washington January 26, 1967
35 Iowa January 26, 1967 36 Oregon February 2, 1967
37 Minnesota February 10, 1967 38 Nevada February 10, 1967
Amendment added to Constitution: February 10, 1967
39 Connecticut February 14, 1967 40 Montana February 15, 1967
41 South Dakota March 6, 1967 42 Ohio March 7, 1967
43 Alabama March 14, 1967 44 North Carolina March 22, 1967
45 Illinois March 22, 1967 46 Texas April 25, 1967
47 Florida May 25, 1967
Never ratified the Amendment
North Dakota Georgia
South Carolina

Approved text[change | change source]

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.

The Twenty-fifth Amendment in the National Archives
Page 1
Page 2

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.[19]

Effects[change | change source]

Gerald Ford is sworn in as President after Nixon's resignation

Section 1: Presidential succession[change | change source]

Section 1 made the "Tyler Precedent" a law. It says that if a President is removed from office, dies, or resigns, the Vice President immediately becomes President (not "Acting President").[19]

Section 2: Vice Presidential vacancy[change | change source]

Before the Twenty-fifth Amendment, if the Vice President's position was empty, it stayed empty until the next election.[14]

Under Section 2, whenever there is a vacancy in the office of Vice President, the President nominates someone to replace the Vice President. If a majority of both Houses of Congress agree, that person becomes the Vice President.[19]

Section 3: Presidential declaration[change | change source]

Section 3 says that a President can declare himself "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" (unable to do his job). He must say this in a written letter to both the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Once the President does this, the Vice President becomes Acting President. The President can take back the Presidency at any time by sending letters to the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House, saying he is able to discharge the powers and duties of the Presidency again.[19]

Section 4: Vice Presidential–Cabinet declaration[change | change source]

Section 4 is the only part of the Amendment that has never been used.[21] It allows other executive officials to declare the President unable to do his job. The Vice President must agree to do this. So must:[19]

  • A majority of "the principal officers of the executive departments" (the United States Cabinet), OR
  • "Such other body as Congress may by law provide" (some other group that Congress chooses)

To declare the President unable to do his job, these people would have to sign and give a letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. Like with Section 3, the Vice President would then become the Acting President.[19]

The President may take back the Presidency by sending a letter to the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House. However, if the Vice President and the Cabinet think the President is still disabled and still cannot do his job, they can challenge his return. They have four days to write another declaration saying the President is still unable to do his job. The Vice President is still Acting President during these four days. Congress then has to get together within 48 hours, if they are not already in session. Then Congress has 21 days to make a decision. In the meantime, the Vice President is still Acting President.[19]

If two-thirds of each House of Congress votes that the President still cannot do his job, the Vice President would continue to be Acting President. If Congress does not vote this way, or if they do not vote at all within 21 days, the President takes over the Presidency again.[19]

Uses[change | change source]

The Twenty-fifth Amendment has been invoked (used) six times since it was added to the Constitution. Section 1 has been used once; Section 2 has been used twice; and Section 3 has been used three times. Only Section 4 has never been used, though it was considered twice.

Use of Section 1[change | change source]

Nixon's resignation letter, August 9, 1974.

President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before the House could vote on whether to impeach him for crimes related to the Watergate scandal.[22] Vice President Gerald Ford became President as soon as Nixon resigned.[22]

Use of Section 2[change | change source]

On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned.[23] Two days later, President Richard Nixon nominated United States Representative Gerald Ford of Michigan to be the new Vice President.[23] According to Section 2, more than 50% of each House of Congress had to approve Ford as Vice President. By December 6, 97% of the Senate and 92% of the House had approved Ford.[b][23] Ford was sworn in to the Vice Presidency later on December 6 before both Houses of Congress.[23] Ford is the only person in United States history ever to be Vice President, and later President, without being elected to either office.[24]

When Gerald Ford became President after Richard Nixon resigned, the Vice Presidency became vacant. On August 20, 1974, the new President Ford nominated former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to be the new Vice President.[22] On December 10, 1974, the Senate confirmed Rockefeller with a vote of 90–7. Nine days later, the House voted 287-128 to confirm Rockefeller. He was sworn into office later on December 19, 1974, before the Senate.[22]

Use of Section 3[change | change source]

Presidents have used Section 3 of the 25th Amendment three times. Each time, they have given power to their Vice Presidents for a short time because they needed to get anesthesia for medical tests or surgery. The three Acting Presidents in United States history are listed below.

George H. W. Bush (1985)[change | change source]

On July 12, 1985, President Ronald Reagan found out that he had a small growth in his colon that could turn into colon cancer. His doctor told him he needed surgery. Reagan decided to have surgery right away.[25]

I am [aware] of the provisions of Section 3.... I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as [this] one.
– Ronald Reagan, in his letter[26]

However, Reagan did not want to invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment. He was worried that giving Presidential power away would set a bad precedent.[25] The White House's head lawyer and Reagan's Chief of Staff suggested that he use Section 3 and give power to Vice President George H.W. Bush.[25]

Two letters were created. The first invoked Section 3 and said Reagan would be unable to discharge his duties.[25] The second said that Reagan knew about Section 3, and did not think it applied to his situation, but still wanted Bush to take over during his surgery. On July 13, Reagan signed the second letter and had it delivered to the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House.[26]

Reagan's autobiography, and other books, argue that Reagan clearly meant to give power to Vice President Bush.[27][28]pp. 197–200 The White House lawyer, Fred Fielding, said:

I personally know he did intend to invoke the amendment, and he [communicated] that to all of his staff and ... to the VP [Vice President] as well as the President of the Senate. He was also very firm in his wish not to create a precedent binding his successor.[28]p.197

However, since Reagan did not specifically mention Section 3 and say he could not do his job as President, he did not officially invoke the 25th Amendment.[19]

Dick Cheney (2002; 2007)[change | change source]

On June 29, 2002, President George W. Bush became the first President to officially invoke Section 3. He needed a colonoscopy, a test of the colon, and would be getting anesthesia. He formally gave power to his Vice President, Dick Cheney, using the rules that the 25th Amendment set out. Unlike Reagan, he specifically said he was using Section 3 of the 25th Amendment in his letter to the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House.[29] After about two hours, Bush was awake and took back the Presidency.[30]

On July 21, 2007, President Bush again invoked Section 3 so he could have another colonoscopy.[31] Again, Cheney was Acting President for about two hours, until Bush was ready to take back the Presidency.[32]

1981: Reagan assassination attempt[change | change source]

On March 30, 1981, a man named John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was shot and needed surgery, so he could not invoke Section 3 to give power to his Vice President. His Vice President, George H.W. Bush, did not invoke Section 4, because he was on an airplane returning from Texas. Reagan was out of surgery by the time Bush got to Washington, D.C.[28]pp. 195–6, 253-5

In 1995, Birch Bayh, who had written the Senate version of the 25th Amendment, wrote that Section 4 should have been invoked.[33]

1987: Reagan accused of not doing his job[change | change source]

In 1987, Reagan's Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, resigned.[28]p. 218 Howard Baker replaced him.[28]p. 83 Regan's staff told Baker that Reagan seemed lazy and unable to do his job. They told him to be ready for Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to be invoked.[34]

According to the PBS program American Experience:

What Baker's transition team was told by Donald Regan's staff that weekend shocked them. Reagan was 'inattentive, inept,' and 'lazy,' and Baker should be prepared to invoke the 25th Amendment to [take away] his duties.[34]

In an interview on the program, Edmund Morris, who had written a biography of Reagan, said:

The incoming Baker people all decided to have a meeting with him on Monday, 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.

Reagan who was, of course, completely unaware that they were launching a death watch on him, came in stimulated by ... 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.[34]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Usually, to pass an amendment to the Constitution, two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate must vote to pass the same amendment. Then the states must ratify the amendment. Three-fourths of the state legislatures must ratify the amendment before it is added to the Constitution. See Article Five of the Constitution for more information.[17]
  2. The Senate voted 92-3 on November 27; the House voted 387-35 on December 6.[23]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "U.S. Constitution: Article II". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  2. Chitwood, Oliver (1990). John Tyler: Champion of the Old South. American Political Biography Press. p. 206. ISBN 978-0945707028.
  3. Dinnerstein, Leonard (October 1962). "The Accession of John Tyler to the Presidency". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 70 (4): 447–58. 
  4. Crapol, Edward P. (2006). John Tyler, the Accidental President. University of North Carolina Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8078-3041-3.
  5. "John Tyler, Tenth Vice President (1841)". Senate History. United States Senate. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  6. Schlimgen, Joan (January 23, 2012). "Woodrow Wilson – Strokes and Denial". Arizona Health Sciences Library. University of Arizona. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  7. Crispell, Kenneth R.; Gomez, Carlos (September 30, 1988). "Woodrow Wilson: Strokes, Versailles, and the Pathology of Politics". Hidden Illness in the White House. Duke University Press. pp. 65, 69–71. ISBN 978-0822308393.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Neale, Thomas H. (September 27, 2004). CRS Report for Congress – Presidential and Vice Presidential Succession: Overview and Current Legislation (PDF) (Report). Congressional Research Service / United States Library of Congress. pp. i, 22–23. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  9. Reeves, Richard (1993). President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 425. ISBN 978-0-671-64879-4.
  10. Germany, Kent (ed.). "Lyndon B. Johnson: Life Before the Presidency" Check |url= value (help). Miller Center of Public Affairs. University of Virginia. Retrieved March 17, 2016. soft hyphen character in |url= at position 24 (help)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Presidential Succession During the Johnson Administration. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Accessed March 17, 2016
  12. "McCormack, John William (1891-1980)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. United States Congress. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  13. "Hayden, Carl Trumbull (1877–1972)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. United States Congress. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Owensby, J. Jackson (February 1, 2011). The United States Constitution (Revisited). “America the Great Series”, The Birth of a Nation, The Revolutionary Era, Volume II. A-Argus Books. pp. 372–374. ISBN 978-0984619566.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Bayh, United States Senator Birch Evans (June 1968). One Heartbeat Away: Presidential Disability and Succession. Bobbs-Merrill Co. ISBN 978-0672511608.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Introduction". The Establishment and First Uses of the 25th Amendment: An Online Exhibit of Documents, Photographs, and Videos. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  17. 17.0 17.1 "U.S. Constitution: Article V". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Constitutional Amendment on Presidency". CQ Almanac. CQ Press. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 19.6 19.7 19.8 19.9 "Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27". Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Constitution, Jefferson’s Manual, and the Rules of the House of Representatives, 113th Congress: Amendment XXV. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 118.
  21. Smentkowski, Brian P. (November 18, 2014). "Twenty-fifth Amendment: United States Constitution". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 "Rockefeller Nomination and Confirmation as VP". The Establishment and First Uses of the 25th Amendment: An Online Exhibit of Documents, Photographs, and Videos. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 "Ford Nomination and Confirmation as VP". The Establishment and First Uses of the 25th Amendment: An Online Exhibit of Documents, Photographs, and Videos. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  24. Memorial Services in the Congress of the United States and Tributes in Eulogy of Gerald R. Ford, Late a President of the United States. Government Printing Office. 2007. p. 35. ISBN 9780160797620.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Crispell, Kenneth R.; Gomez, Carlos (September 30, 1988). "The Twenty-fifth Amendment and the Decisions of History". Hidden Illness in the White House. Duke University Press. pp. 216, 239–40. ISBN 978-0822308393.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Reagan, President Ronald (July 13, 1985). "Letter to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House on the Discharge of the President's Powers and Duties During His Surgery". The American Presidency Project. University of South Carolina Beaufort. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  27. Reagan, Ronald (1990). An American Life. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0671691981.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 Abrams, Herbert L. (1994). “The President Has Been Shot”: Confusion, Disability, and the 25th Amendment. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0804723251.
  29. Bush, President George W. (June 29, 2002). "Letter to Congressional Leaders on Temporary Transfer of the Powers and Duties of the President of the United States". The American Presidency Project. University of South Carolina Beaufort. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  30. Peters, Gerhard. "List of Vice-Presidents Who Served as "Acting" President Under the 25th Amendment". The American Presidency Project. University of South Carolina Beaufort. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  31. Bush, President George W. (July 21, 2007). "Letter to Congressional Leaders on Temporary Transfer of the Powers and Duties of the President of the United States". The American Presidency Project. University of South Carolina Beaufort. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  32. Purcell, L. Edward (2010). "Richard Bruce Cheney". Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Infobase Publishing. p. 455. ISBN 9781438130712.
  33. Bayh, Birch (April 8, 1995). "The White House Safety Net". The New York Times. New York, New York. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Hoyt, Austin (Executive Producer) (1998). Reagan (Documentary). "American Experience: The Presidents Collection." PBS. Transcript available online.