On November 19, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris made history when she became the first woman to officially take on the role of Acting U.S. President. In accordance with the 3rd section of the 25th Amendment, President Joe Biden transferred power to Harris as he underwent anesthesia for a routine colonoscopy. This is only the fourth time in U.S. history that this section of the 25th Amendment was invoked. The first time was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when he transferred duties to then Vice President Bush during Reagan’s colon cancer surgery. The other two times also took place during routine colonoscopies, both of which were undergone by George W. Bush, who temporarily transferred power to Vice President Cheney.
One reason why this official temporary transfer of power has been so rare is that the 25th amendment is a relatively new addition to the United States Constitution. The passage of the amendment took place after John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963; then President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the amendment into law on February 23, 1967. The amendment contains four sections, all of which are tied to presidential succession. This includes the first section, which codifies that in case of the President’s removal from office, death or resignation, the Vice President becomes President. It also includes the much discussed section 4, which allows a president to be removed from office and replaced by the Vice President as Acting President. During the tail end of Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of public figures called on then Vice President Pence, and President Trump’s cabinet, to invoke this section. Section 4 allows the Vice President and “the principal officers of the executive departments” (i.e., Cabinet members) to declare that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. This power can also be given to another such body by Congress, but to date, only the Vice President and Cabinet have this removal power. A President can subsequently declare to the leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate that they are fit to serve and will continue to do so, unless the Vice President and the majority of Cabinet members reply to those same legislative leaders with a written declaration of their own. In a contested situation such as this, Congress would ultimately decide if the President would remain in office. A two-thirds vote threshold in both Houses of Congress must then be met in order to remove the President, otherwise the President will resume office.
The 25th Amendment is not the only time the federal government has broached the issue of presidential succession. The framers of the Constitution addressed the issue in Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6, essentially outlining that the Vice President would take over the duties of the President in case of the President’s removal. However, this did not fully resolve the issue, as government officials and legal scholars argued for years about what exactly was meant by this clause. In fact, succession was addressed explicitly by Congress on three more occasions: in 1792, 1886, and 1947. Each new piece of legislation slightly altered the line of succession that follows the Vice President, mainly changing the order between the Senate president pro tempore, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President’s Cabinet members.
In light of this month’s historic moment, this week’s Current Events resources examine the presidential line of succession. The resources shared provide context and history to how the United States has attempted to ensure that there is no ambiguity around who is in charge of the federal government’s executive branch during times of crisis.
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Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:
- Why is having a concrete line of succession of the presidency such an important bedrock to a democracy?
- Why do the members of the Cabinet come after members of both Congressional houses in the presidential line of succession?
- With the Vice President being the first in line for presidential succession, does the way they are elected make sense to you? Why or Why not?
- Was passing the 25th Amendment of the Constitution necessary? Why or Why not?
- In your opinion, should unelected officials, such as Cabinet members, be a part of the presidential line of succession?
- In your opinion, was the original language in the Constitution regarding succession sufficient? Or was the subsequent legislation and 25th amendment necessary to clear up any ambiguity?
Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions & Presidential Succession Vocabulary
Click here for a hardcopy of the Extend the Resources handout with suggested lesson activities and extensions
Presidential succession and the 25th Amendment, We the People Podcast, National Constitution Center, February 16, 2017
Constitutional quirks, election oddities, and the presidential line of succession, KYW Newsradio In Depth, November 2, 2021
John Yoo on Presidential Succession and Constitutional War Powers, The 1787 Project with Justin Dyer, October 11, 2020
The 25th Amendment, Civics 101
Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution, Constitution Annotated
25th Amendment, U.S. Constitution, National Constitution Center
Presidential Succession Act, United States Senate
Order of Presidential Succession, USA.gov
Biden gets first physical as president, power transferred to VP Harris, ABC News, November 19, 2021
First woman in US history, VP Kamala Harris, gets presidential power today, Midland Daily News, November 19, 2021
Californians Move Toward Lock on Presidential Succession, New York Magazine, November 17, 2021
What if? Some presidential succession questions aren’t answered by 25th Amendment and federal law, ABA Journal, October 5, 2020
A Presidential Succession Nightmare, Lawfare, March 25, 2020
OPINION: How presidential succession works, The Lawton Constitution, June 15, 2021
Invoking the 25th Amendment should be as routine as a colonoscopy, The Washington Post, November 21, 2021
Nancy Pelosi Should Not Be President, The New York Times, November 3, 2019
Our nation’s history with presidential inability and succession, The Hill, January 11, 2021
Articles for Elementary Students:
Presidential succession, Britannica Kids
Dreaming Big: Kamala Harris & Us, Morning Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of The United States, National Park Service
Presidential Succession, iCivics
Bell Ringer: Presidential Succession Act of 1947, C-SPAN Classroom
Presidential Succession, ProCon.org
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, Bill of Rights Institute
Women and the Presidency, Center for American Women and Politics
Media & News Literacy Lesson Plans:
Media Literacy Resources – Newseum
News & Media Literacy Lessons – Common Sense
Media Misinformation, Viral Deception, and “Fake News” – University of Wyoming
Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News – New York Times Lessons