2021 has continued the frenzied divisive politics of the 2020 American presidential election. President Trump is leaving office in a matter of days – perhaps via impeachment – and Joe Biden will take over the presidential hot-seat; however, the partisan chasm between Republicans and Democrats looks set to worsen over this next election cycle. But for teachers of politics, the recent events – of Trump’s dubious claims of a fraudulent election, of the storming of the Capitol, and of recent impeachment proceedings – have provided us with an opportunity to discuss particular amendments and protocols by utilising contemporary, relevant examples.
Which leads us on to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution. This was introduced in the 1960s in order to clarify presidential succession and also to outline what would happen if a president became unable – mentally or physically – ‘to discharge the powers and duties of his office’. This system has been utilised on three occasions since the passing of the amendment, when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were unconscious due to surgery. On all of these occasions the powers of president were bestowed on the vice-president for a handful of hours.
So far the amendment has been utilised as a choice of the president. However, the recent fiasco in Washington DC has prompted many in the media to discuss whether or not the vice-president has the power to prompt its use if they deemed the president unfit for office. This led to calls to Mike Pence to enact the amendment in order to remove Trump – even if temporarily – due to his involvement in inciting the events at the Capitol in early January 2021.
Pence rejected any calls, which has led to the current impeachment (interestingly Trump becomes the first president to be impeached two times). However, what right did Pence – as the vice-president – actually have?
Despite the clarification of succession of the amendment, notable ambiguity remains, as outlined by an article posted by the Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic:
‘no specific threshold – medical or otherwise – for the “inability” contemplated in Section 4. The framers specifically rejected any definition of the term, prioritizing flexibility…’
‘The amendment does not require that any particular type or amount of evidence be submitted to determine that the President is unable to perform his duties…’
Therefore, in theory the Twenty-Fifth amendment provides notable powers to the office of vice-president. This is a relatively late development of power for this role, with it coming almost two centuries after the writing of the American Constitution, however this clarification did resolve the anomalous position of the role of Vice President. Prior to this, the vice-president held an odd position in American politics: a heartbeat away from holding executive office, but ultimately essentially useless. The first vice-president (and eventually president after Washington stepped down) John Adams outlined this paradox:
‘I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.’
Based on Trump’s unorthodox time as president the use of this amendment by Pence would not have been totally surprising. Despite it not being utilised it has been pleasing to see the amendment being discussed in the media at such a deep level. It may not get the same coverage as other amendments – I’m looking at your Second Amendment! – but it seems to have become a more widely recognised one due to Trump’s failures to fulfil his executive duties.