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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a copy of the United States constitution
Unpacked

The 25th Amendment

Editor's Note:

"In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide fact-based analysis of Trump administration policies and news."

THE ISSUE: If the president of the United States is no longer able to execute the duties of the office, the vice president, Cabinet, and Congress have the ability to remove his powers under Section IV of the 25th Amendment. The process, which is intended to preserve the integrity of the office of the president and the continuity of government, is more difficult than impeachment and is reserved only for truly unique and dire circumstances.

Yes, Congress, the vice president, and the Cabinet can use the 25th Amendment to take power away from the president, but institutionally it is actually harder to use the 25th Amendment than it is to impeach a president.

THE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  • The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967 to create a clearer understanding of what happens in the case of presidential vacancy or disability.
  • The 25th Amendment offers an alternative route to impeachment for institutions of government to deal with a “problem presidency,” whether that problem is misconduct or whether the president, for sickness or another reason, is no longer able to execute the duties of the office.
  • Section IV of the 25th Amendment gives the Congress and the vice president and Cabinet the ability to effectively remove the powers from the president of the United States.
  • The amendment is meant to preserve the integrity of the office and the continuity of government.
    Section IV of the 25th Amendment was put into place for really dire circumstances. Congress has always had the power to impeach and remove a president, but there was a belief that in the case of presidential incapacity (due to illness, etc.), it would be in poor taste to impeach a president.
  • Impeachment is supposed to occur in the event of high crimes and misdemeanors. It leaves a black mark on a presidency that in theory could be a perfectly functional presidency until illness strikes.
  • The 25th Amendment is a complicated process for several reasons:
    • It begins with the vice president and a majority of the members of the Cabinet, notifying the Congress that the president is no longer capable of performing his duties. At that moment, the power of the presidency is transferred from the president to the vice president, who then becomes acting president.
    • From there, the president can convey to Congress that he is capable of performing his duties. Unless the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet once again notify Congress that the incapacity remains, the president gets his powers back.
    • If the vice president and Cabinet communicate subsequently to Congress that the incapacity remains, then Congress makes the decision. The House and the Senate convene and they must vote by a 2/3 vote of both parties to permanently strip the powers of the presidency away from the president and transfer them to the vice president.
    • The 25th Amendment is a multi-part amendment to the Constitution. It has been invoked on multiple occasions. Typically, when a president is enduring a medical procedure during which he has to be anesthetized or sedated in some way, he’ll notify Congress that he is temporarily transferring power to the vice president who for that period of time serves as acting president.
  • President Clinton, President Bush, and others invoked the 25th Amendment during medical procedures. However, Section IV of the 25th Amendment—where power is taken from the president by the choice of the vice president and the Cabinet—hasn’t been invoked since the constitutional amendment was ratified in 1967.
  • In the contemporary context, there’s a bit of a misunderstanding between the power of the 25th Amendment and the reality of using it in practice.
  • Yes, the Congress, the vice president, and the Cabinet can use the 25th Amendment to take power away from the president, but institutionally it is actually harder to use the 25th Amendment to remove presidential power, than it is to impeach a president.
  • Impeachment requires a simple majority in the House and a 2/3 majority in the Senate. Under the 25th Amendment, permanent removal of those powers requires a 2/3 vote in both houses. For that reason, Section IV is truly reserved for unique and dire circumstances facing the office of the president of the United States.

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