Coronavirus and Transfer of Power: What Happens Next?

In the all-too-real reality show that has gripped the United States since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, this past week’s twin episodes reached levels of intensity few Spirited Reasoners could endure. We’re referring, of course, to the (so-called) presidential debate that was followed closely by news of the President’s illness. This week’s blog post will focus on the latter.

Events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy led to the adoption of the 25th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1965. Those of us old enough to remember those events understand the sense of urgency. (It took only about a year for the amendment to be proposed and adopted.) The argument ran like this: suppose President Kennedy had suffered a head wound that left him alive yet incapacitated. How could the Executive Branch continue to function? There were no provisions in the Constitution for a situation in which the President was alive, yet unable to carry out his executive duties.

Alas, a thorough reading of the 25th Amendment raises as many questions as it answers.

First the answers:

According to Sections 3 and 4 of the Amendment, power can pass temporarily from the President to the Vice President in cases where the President is unable to “discharge the powers and duties of his office.”  Under Section 3, the President sends a written message to that effect to both the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (currently Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (currently Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California). Then, when the disabling condition has passed, Section 3 provides for a second message having the effect of cancelling the first. So far, so good.

Section 4 is more worrisome. Under this provision, it is the Vice President who, along with a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments,” notifies the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, at which point power transfers to the Vice President.

Now for some questions:

The Amendment appears to contemplate a situation wherein the President might declare that the disability has ended while, at the same time, the Vice President and Cabinet officials disagree on the subject. At that point, a special session of Congress (acting jointly? as separate houses?) is convened, and a two-thirds vote (of both, separately?) is required to overturn the President’s request for reinstatement of power.

Although Section 4 contemplates that a legislative quorum could all be assembled within 48 hours and that the session could be completed in 21 days or less, one wonders, given these days of gridlock and Coronavirus, whether our Legislative Branch would be able to agree even upon the procedural rules necessary to conduct the session. Would House rules be followed? Senate rules? A new set of rules? Recall the time that was required for a set of impeachment procedures to be adopted by the House this past year before the (so-called) trial could occur in the Senate.

But there is one question that would, pardon the pun, trump all the rest: How much mischief could occur nationally and internationally during those weeks of uncertainty, while the leadership of the United States remains rudderless?

To obviate these questions, Spirited Reasoners wish President Trump a safe return from the hospital in the near future.