If you’ve been tuned into anything going on for America in January 2021, you’ve probably heard quite a few whispers about invoking the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution. Now as of January 11th, it doesn’t seem too likely that the 25th will be invoked, but things move quickly in the 2020s, so who knows at this point? But we’re not here to speculate into anyone’s brain in particular. So let’s just ask; what happens if the 25th Amendment were to be invoked? Just kind of generally.
Further Reading: What Brought About the 25th Amendment?
The Cabinet of the United States
In case you needed a refresher, the 25th Amendment is one of the handfuls of checks on the US president. The other primary vector for removing a sitting president is the impeachment process, which comes out of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
So back to the 25th Amendment. It would be redundant to have it be another check invoked by the legislative branch of the US government–they have impeachment, after all. So the 25th is invoked by the presidential Cabinet of the United States. Alright what’s the Cabinet? They make up the bulk of the presidential line of succession–though they don’t come into play until after the vice president (who is technically a part of the Cabinet), speaker of the House, and president pro tempore of the Senate (in that order). Cabinet members are each appointed by the elected president, and can be dismissed by the president at any time–though they do have to be approved by the Senate for a spot on the Cabinet. The positions for the Cabinet are your things like Attorney General, Secretary of State, Defense, Education, Transportation, etc. Point is, this group of presidential appointees, along with the vice president, decide whether or not the 15th Amendment is invoked against a sitting president.
The vice president, though, has to be on board with invoking the 25th Amendment–so they’re a pretty big gatekeeper. Not that a huge conflict between the vice president and the presidential Cabinet is likely–they were all chosen by the same president. Not to say that it hasn’t happened before or never will happen, because vice presidents have definitely been hated by the Cabinet. Like Hannibal Hamlin. Anyway, point is the VP can stonewall a movement to invoke the 25th on their own.
How Removal Works
The 25th Amendment doesn’t necessitate giving the sitting president the boot. Sometimes a president just can’t do their job for a little while but will be able to when they come back. Like when George W. Bush was under anesthesia for a bit.
How does that work? Well the 25th Amendment doesn’t say “haha go away you’re done” to the president. Section IV of the 25th Amendment states that once invoked (either by the Cabinet or some extenuating circumstance like the president suffering grievous injury or death) the powers of the president are transferred to the vice president as acting president.
Now, this seems like it could be sketchy. What’s stopping a VP from rallying the Cabinet behind the president’s back to forcibly wrench power from them? For starters, both the House of Representatives and Senate have to sign off if the 25th is going to be active for an extended period of time. After 21 days, the House and the Senate have to agree by 2/3 majority (within each body) that the president should not retake power in order for the VP to remain acting president. Otherwise, the president retakes power as normal. If they don’t vote at all, it’s presumed that the president will retake power. So our hypothetical snake-tongued vice president would have to convince a lot more people than just the Cabinet.
But the assumption, of course, is that this won’t really happen. The point of the 25th is not to indict and charge a sitting president with a crime like impeachment does. It’s for when the president’s (presumably closest) advisors think that they’re too far gone and can’t do their job anymore. Or it’s like when your parents put the older sibling in charge when they were out of the house.
Does the 25th Amendment Bar Executives from Holding Office
No, no it doesn’t. There isn’t any provision in the 25th Amendment that states “if we pull this on you you can’t ever be president again.” The same kind of goes for impeachment. For starters, impeachment doesn’t even mean one is removed from office. It just means that Congress has accused the sitting president of a crime and plans to hold a (kind of) trial to figure out whether or not the president is guilty of those crimes. Once the formal accusations have been made you have been impeached.
Presidents have been impeached before, though none have been removed from office through the impeachment process. Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump have been the only presidents so far to have been impeached. Richard Nixon is a bit of a wonky case, he wasn’t formally impeached over Watergate, though impeachment proceedings did begin. Nixon resigned before formal impeachment took place–meaning even though he wasn’t fully impeached (yet), Nixon is the only US president thus far to have been removed from office as a result of impeachment. Albeit adjacent to it.
Even if you’re convicted and removed from office through impeachment, you’re not immediately barred from ever holding office again. Legally, at least. People probably wouldn’t vote you in again, unless something funny’s going on with the rest of the federal government. That depends on the crime you’re ultimately charged with, like sedition, treason, and the like.
How Do You Bar Someone from Office?
Great question, it’s a thing that can be done–and doesn’t necessarily require impeachment or the invocation of the 25th Amendment. For that, we turn to the 14th Amendment. Section III essentially outlines that nobody in office within the federal government can have taken part in sedition, insurrection, or rebellion against the US. Which makes sense, why would any organized body want members who actively want to destroy it?
Anyway, conspiring to destroy the American government or aiding enemies to the US is a real great way to never be able to hold office (or hold office again, if you commit treason while in office). Though unless you were already proven to be a seditionist, it wouldn’t really come up until you ran again and everyone was like “wait a minute” before you were booted from the race.
More quizzing on the Constitutional Amendments here.