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What Is the 25th Amendment? A Simplified Guide

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Posted by Christine Sarikas | Jan 15, 2021 5:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Constitutional Amendments are a critical part of the US Government, but that doesn't mean they're easy to understand. They're often filled with jargon and are difficult for non-experts to understand right off the bat. Fortunately, we're here to help. 

This guide gives an in-depth but clear and easy-to-understand 25th Amendment summary. Some of the key points we cover are:

  • What is the 25th Amendment in simple terms?
  • What does each section of the 25th Amendment mean?
  • How does the 25th Amendment work?
  • When was the 25th Amendment used?

 

25th Amendment Simplified: Quick Reference Guide

To make it easy to find the specific information you're looking for, use the links below to jump to different sections of this guide.

 

What Are Constitutional Amendments? Why Are They Important?

Before we focus on the 25th Amendment, let's take a brief look at Constitutional Amendments in general. The Constitution of the United States is a document that serves as the foundation of the U.S. Government. It lays out the United States’ governing system, the system of checks and balances that keeps the government in line, and the fundamental laws that run the nation. 

As times change, the Constitution occasionally needs to be updated to include the new rules, laws, or rights that a country believes are fundamental to its operation. 

An amendment to a constitution adds to or changes the original constitutional document. The United States Constitution can be amended through a very specific, and fairly difficult, process that’s outlined in Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution. 

Once amendments are ratified (formally approved), they are treated with equal importance and weight as if they were included in the original document signed over 200 years ago. Since it was passed in 1789, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. The most recent amendment to the Constitution is the 27th Amendment, which was ratified in 1992. 

 

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What Is the 25th Amendment? When Was It Ratified?

The 25th Amendment covers the issue of presidential succession. The amendment contains four sections, and they lay out rules for what happens when there's a vacancy for the office of the presidency or vice presidency, as well as what happens when the president is no longer able to carry out the duties of the office, either temporarily or permanently.

Before the 25th Amendment, there was no formally established succession order for the offices of the president and vice president and no clear procedure to follow when the president became too disabled to carry out his duties. When President William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841, Vice President John Tyler declared that he was the new president. It was inferred, but not formally laid out in the US Constitution, that the vice president assumes the office of president in instances like these, so Tyler was eventually accepted by Congress as the new president, although there was some pushback. Similarly, when presidents suffered from severe illnesses or injuries (for example, President James Garfield lying in a coma or near-coma for nearly 80 days before dying after he was shot in 1881), the country lacked effective leadership for sometimes weeks at a time. There was no clear standard for what should be done in these situations, and vice presidents were hesitant to look as though they were trying to take over the office, so the government was severely hindered.

These issues came to a head in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and there was confusion over how to fill the office of vice president (as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was now the new president) as well as concern over what might happen if President Johnson became ill or incapacitated before a new vice president was approved. Led by Senator Birch Bayh, Congress focused on the issue of succession and, in July 1965, the 25th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification. It was ratified on February 10, 1967.

 

The 4 Sections of the 25th Amendment Explained

Now that you have a solid 25th Amendment summary, let's look at the amendment more in depth. There are four sections to the 25th Amendment. For each section, we first include the complete text then explain what it means in simple terms. After that, we discuss instances that each section has been used or people have considered using it.

 

Section 1

"In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President."

This section is pretty straightforward and covers information most Americans already know: If the president leaves office, for whatever reason, the vice president takes over and becomes the new president.

 

Use

Section 1 of the 25th Amendment has been used once, by President Richard Nixon. President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford became president as soon as Nixon resigned.



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."

This section explains what happens when there's a vacancy in the office of the vice president. When a vacancy occurs, the president is the one who nominates a new vice president. However, before that person can become vice president, they need to be confirmed by a majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. When all seats in Congress are filled, a majority vote requires at least 218 votes in favor from the House of Representatives and 51 votes in favor from the Senate.

 

Use

Section 2 of the 25th Amendment has been used twice. The first was on October 10, 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. Two days later, President Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to be vice president. Ford received majority votes in both the House of Reps and the Senate and became the new vice president on December 6.

The second time was when President Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president, leaving the office of the vice presidency vacant. On August 20, 1974, he nominated Nelson Rockefeller, who was confirmed by Congress and sworn in on December 19.

Fun fact: Gerald Ford is the only person to have become both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected to either office. He got both of these new positions through the 25th Amendment.

 

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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 3 of the 25th Amendment covers what happens when the President decides to temporarily give up power. This might happen if the President is ill or undergoing a medical procedure where he'll be incapacitated and temporarily unable to perform his duties as president. The President must declare this decision in writing to the President pro tempore of the Senate (the second-highest-ranking official in the Senate) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (the leader of the House of Reps). When this happens, the Vice President takes over the duties of the president and the president (although he remains in office) has no authority. To regain his authority, the president must put into writing that he is again fit to act as president.

 

Use

Section 3 of the 25th Amendment has currently been used three times, each time when a president was undergoing a medical procedure:

  • In 1985 by President Reagan when he needed surgery (power transferred to Vice President George H.W. Bush).
  • In 2002 and again in 2007 by President George W. Bush when he underwent a colonoscopy (power transferred to Vice President Dick Cheney).

For each use of Section 3, the vice president only had power transferred to him for a few hours.


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."

Section 4 covers what happens when the president is incapacitated and unable to hold office but is unable to or refuses to formally give up the powers of the office. 

You might notice that some of the language is vague in this section. There is no definition or standard for what it means to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." This was done purposely. The writers of the 25th Amendment didn't believe a rigid definition of what it meant to be capable or unable to carry out presidential duties should be included as they felt it was better for the members of government to decide this on their own as the situation arose. Some potential examples put forth by Constitutional scholars of when Section 4 might be needed is if a president is kidnapped, has an unforeseen emergency, or has traits or illnesses that prevent them from carrying out presidential duties, even if there hasn't been a formal medical diagnosis.

Let's break what happens when Section 4 is being considered. To use Section 4, the vice president must believe the president can no longer carry out the duties of the office. Additionally, a majority of either "principal officers of the executive departments" or some other Congressional body must agree.

The "principal officers of the executive office" refers to the fifteen cabinet members:

  • Attorney General
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Secretary of Homeland Security
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Secretary of the Interior
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs

At least eight of them (along with the vice president) would need to agree that the president is unfit to continue to hold office. If that happens, the cabinet members and the vice president need to give a written declaration to the president pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House stating that they believe the president "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." As soon as that happens, the president is stripped of his powers, and the vice president becomes acting president.

However, if the president still believes he's fit to hold office, he can submit his own written declaration saying he can still perform his duties. As soon as that happens, he immediately resumes his powers, and the vice president is no longer acting president.

But that doesn't necessarily end things! If the vice president and majority of the cabinet still believe the president is unfit to carry out his duties, they can submit another written declaration within four days of the president's written declaration. As soon as this happens, the vice president again becomes acting president, and Congress is also required to assemble within 48 hours and vote within 21 days on the president's fitness for office. If at least two-thirds of both the House and Senate agree the president is unfit to carry out the duties of the office, the president is permanently stripped of his position, and the vice president continues to serve as acting president. If the vote falls short, the president continues to carry out his duties.

Here's the process again, in simplified steps:

  1. Vice president believes the president can no longer carry out the duties of his office.

  2. A majority of the 15 cabinet members agree.

  3. The VP and the cabinet write a letter stating their beliefs, the president loses power, and the VP becomes acting president.

  4. If the president disagrees, he writes his own letter and regains power.

  5. If the VP and cabinet still believe the president is unfit for duty, they have four days to send another letter. As soon as this letter is sent, the president again loses power, and the VP again becomes acting president.

  6. Congress has 21 days to vote on the president's ability to carry out the duties of the office. If at least two-thirds of both the Senate and House agree he's unfit, the president permanently loses power, and the VP continues to be acting president. If less than two-thirds agree, the president again regains power.

As you can see, the writers of the 25th Amendment made sure it wouldn't be easy to remove a president from power this way. In fact, it can actually be easier to remove a president through impeachment than it is through the 25th Amendment. To invoke the 25th Amendment, you need at least the vice president and half of the executive cabinet to decide the president is unfit for duty to strip the president of his powers and, if the president disagrees, a full ⅔ of Congress must also agree the president is unfit for him to be permanently stripped of his powers.

 

Use

The fourth section of the 25th Amendment has never been used, although it has been considered several times. In 1981, President Reagan was shot by an attempted assassin. He didn't have time to invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment before undergoing surgery. Vice President George H.W. Bush at the time chose not to invoke Section 4 because he was on a plane at the time of the shooting and, by the time the plane landed, President Reagan was out of surgery. (A draft of the vice president's letter was prepared but never signed.) Towards the end of President Reagan's presidency, some of his political opponents also discussed using Section 4 as they believed the president was showing signs of dementia. However, this was never carried out.

In 2017, after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe claimed that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had discussions with members of the Justice Department about possibly invoking Section 4 (although a spokesperson for Rosenstein later denied these conversations took place).

In 2021, after the storming of the US Capitol, multiple high-ranking politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, called for Section 4 to be invoked after President Trump was accused of inciting the violence. Several members of President Trump's cabinet were also said to be considering invoking Section 4.

 

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Summary: 25th Amendment Simplified

What is the 25th Amendment? The 25th Amendment simplified covers the issue of presidential and vice presidential succession and what happens when there is a presidential disability. It was adopted on February 10, 1967. There are four sections to this amendment, and below is a brief 25th Amendment summary:

  • Section 1: If the president leaves office, the vice president becomes the new president.

  • Section 2: If the vice president leaves office, the president nominates a new vice president who must then be confirmed by Congress.

  • Section 3: If the president decides to temporarily give up power, he must put this declaration in writing, and the vice president will become acting president until the president puts in writing that he is able to resume his duties.

  • Section 4: If the vice president decides the president can no longer perform the duties of his office, he and a majority of the executive cabinet can submit this in writing to Congress. When that happens, the vice president becomes acting president. The president can disagree however, and it requires at least two-thirds of Congress voting that the president is unfit for duty for him to be permanently stripped of his powers.

 

What's Next?

Want to learn more about the U.S. Government and how it works? Check out these articles on how a republic is different from a democracy, how checks and balances work, and how the executive branch checks the judicial branch of government. 

Interested in learning more about other Constitutional Amendments? Check out our guide on the 14th Amendment, which clarifies issues around US citizenship.

Curious about early US history? Our guide to the 13 colonies covers all the important and interesting facts about the original colonies.

The Platt Amendment was written during another key time in American history. Learn all about this important document, and how it is still influencing Guantanamo Bay, by reading our complete guide to the Platt Amendment.

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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