WASHINGTON — ONCE again the United States faced the prospect this week of having a president physically unable to perform his duties, although in this case only for minutes or hours. Throughout American history there have been dozens of such instances. Unlike past occasions, this time both the government and the president were fully prepared. Facing a possible medical procedure that would have fully anesthetized him, President Bush signed papers to turn over temporary leadership of the government to Vice President Dan Quayle as acting president. That's what one section of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which took effect 24 years ago, says a president should do when "he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."
The point of the amendment, says Harvard Law School professor and constitutional expert Laurence Tribe, "was to create a crisis-free procedure for the temporary transfer of power." When President Bush signed papers that would have put the transfer into effect once he was under anesthesia, the leadership of government was ready to be smoothly transferred under procedures that were clearly spelled out by the amendment. Mr. Bush "probably set the precedent that other presidents will have to follow," says p
olitical scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Six years ago President Ronald Reagan, facing anesthesia and major abdominal surgery, signed a similar authorization for shifting power to his vice president, George Bush. As it turned out the transfer of authority was unneeded this week: President Bush made sufficient recovery from heartbeat irregularity so that physicians decided against the additional procedure.
There have been occasions in American history when presidents were so incapacitated they were virtually unable to act. Some such situations were extended. In 1881 President James Garfield lay near death for 80 days before succumbing to complications from a shot fired by a disappointed office seeker. And from October 1919 until the end of his second term a year and a half later President Wilson was an invalid unable to lead the government. Other circumstances have been transitory. During his two terms Pr e
sident Dwight Eisenhower was twice temporarily incapacitated, by a heart attack and surgery. Both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan (three times) underwent surgery that required anesthetization.
The third and fourth sections of the 25th Amendment are intended to deal with all of these circumstances, although the amendment as a whole addresses the question of presidential succession more broadly.
The first section of the amendment reiterated the long-understood principle that if the president dies or leaves office in mid-term, the vice president becomes president.
The second part introduced a new concept, that when there is no vice president, the president should nominate one, who would take office after confirmation by a majority of both houses of Congress. This principle was used twice within a decade of the law's passage. When Richard Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, the president nominated US Rep. Gerald Ford, whom Congress confirmed. When President Nixon himself subsequently resigned, Vice President Ford became president and tapped former
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as vice president. The third section of the amendment is the one that President Bush prepared to invoke: It tells a president who is willing to transfer power how to do it.
The fourth and final segment governs circumstances in which the president does not recognize that he is not capable of running the government. The vice president can take over the duties of president if he and a majority of the Cabinet find the president unable to perform his job. The president can reclaim the office by certifying that he is capable; if the vice president and the Cabinet majority disagree, Congress is the referee.