President George Bush's recent brush with disability and the renewed controversy concerning Vice President Dan Quayle's fitness to be president illuminate a little understood aspect of the U.S. Constitution: during the last two centuries, no institution of government has been more affected by constitutional amendments than the vice presidency.
The multifaceted 25th Amendment, which was enacted in 1967, both testifies and has contributed to the modern significance of the office of vice president.
During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the amendment's presidential disability procedures have been of most immediate concern. President Bush even revealed his intention to invoke one of those procedures last Sunday night. The White House press secretary announced that if Mr. Bush's doctors decided that he should undergo a general anesthetic on Monday morning, the president would sign over his powers and duties to Mr. Quayle. He would do so by writing a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate, as Section 3 of the 25th Amendment requires. Then, as soon as Mr. Bush recovered, he would reclaim his powers and duties by writing a second letter to the two congressional leaders.
Fortunately, the president's doctors prescribed a course of treatment that entailed no loss of consciousness. But Mr. Bush's careful attention to his responsibilities under Section 3 nonetheless stands in sharp contrast to the approach of his immediate predecessor. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ignored the 25th Amendment during the extended recovery period that followed his severe gunshot injury by the assassin John Hinckley.
Four years later, on the eve of cancer surgery, Mr. Reagan signed over his powers and duties to then-Vice President Bush in a grudging letter which actually asserted that the 25th Amendment did not apply to the transfer.
Section 4 of the 25th Amendment provides for a different, potentially nightmarish scenario: a physically or mentally disabled president who refuses (or is unable) to sign over the powers and duties of the office to the vice president. Should such a scenario arise, the amendment calls upon the vice president and a majority of the president's cabinet to transfer the powers and duties of the presidency to the vice president. If they did so over the president's objections, the 25th Amendment requires Congress to decide who is in charge.
The amendment's second section also bespeaks the importance the modern vice presidency. It creates a procedure to fill vacancies in the office, which previously had remained unfilled. Prior to 1967, seven vice presidential deaths, one vice presidential resignation and eight presidential deaths had left the nation without a vice president during 16 of 36 presidential administrations. Section 2 stipulates that, in the modern era, such vacancies are intolerable: the president shall nominate a new vice president when a vacancy in the office occurs, subject to confirmation by both houses of Congress.
Soon after the 25th Amendment was enacted, the new vice presidential selection procedure was quickly employed in circumstances its authors scarcely had imagined. In 1973, Vice President (and former Maryland governor) Spiro T. Agnew resigned as part of a plea bargain agreement with Justice Department officials who otherwise would have prosecuted him on bribery and income tax evasion charges. President Richard Nixon appointed House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford to replace Vice President Agnew.
Less than a year later, Mr. Ford succeeded to the presidency when Mr. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment on Watergate-related charges. President Ford in turn chose former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to be the vice president.
The remaining section of the 25th Amendment (Section 1) states explicitly what previously had only been asserted, namely, that the vice president shall become president for the remainder of the president's four-year term if the president dies, resigns or is impeached and removed from office. Vice President John Tyler had made that claim when William Henry Harrison, the first president not to complete his term, died in 1841. Although Mr. Tyler's action set the precedent for similar occurrences in the future, recent scholarship attests that the framers of the Constitution intended that the vice president would only become acting president until a special election could be called.
To the extent that the 25th Amendment empowered the vice presidency by acknowledging and enhancing the vice president's importance as the constitutional successor to the president, it was partially undoing the disastrous effects on the office of the 12th Amendment, which was enacted in 1804.