The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.” This provision means that the President can relinquish his duties to the Vice President when disabled for any reason and then resume his duties when capable of doing so.
W. Cleon Skousen explained, “It will be observed that the judgmental determination of whether the President is disabled lies entirely within his own province. He can decide when to turn over his duties to the Vice President and when to demand them back again. Although he must advise the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate in each instance, there is no discretionary power in either of them to prevent the President from assigning his duties to his Vice President or resuming them again at a later date.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 759.)
John Feerick of The Heritage Foundation further explained, “Until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was adopted, the nation confronted a number of deaths in office of Presidents and Vice Presidents as well as periods when Presidents have been disabled. When President William Henry Harrison died in 1841, Vice President John Tyler, asserting that he was fully the President, ascended to the presidency for the rest of the term, claiming that was the proper interpretation of the clause. The precedent he established by assumption of the presidency was followed by other Vice Presidents when Presidents died in office. These Presidents were Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The Vice Presidents who succeeded to the office were Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson, respectively.
“Although the Tyler precedent was helpful in providing for continuity and stability, it caused future Vice Presidents to hesitate in asserting any role in a case of presidential inability as opposed to the death of the President. There was the question of whether the Vice President succeeded to the presidency for the rest of the term, even in a case of temporary inability, as well as the problem of the Vice President’s being seen as a usurper because of the constitutional silence about his role in determining whether there was an inability. This hesitancy occurred during the eighty days when President Garfield lay dying after being shot by an assassin in 1881; in the period after President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919; and when Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, an attack of ileitis, and then a stroke. To cope with any future inability, President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard M. Nixon developed an informal protocol. Although it did not have the force of law, it gave assurance that a case of inability would be handled with due regard for stability. It provided for the President to declare his own inability and, if unable to do so, enabled the Vice President, with appropriate consultation, to make the decision. In either event, the Vice President serving as Acting President until the President recovered his powers and duties upon his own declaration of recovery. This protocol was followed in turn by President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, and by President Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. It was a useful protocol, but many in Congress wanted a more formal long-term solution.” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 430-431.)
When Ronald Reagan was shot, he turned the authority of the office of President over to Vice President George H. W. Bush until President Reagan was once again capable of fulfilling his duties. Of course, this occurred in the 1980s and the Amendment was ratified in 1967.