This week's attempted assassination of President Reagan raised the question of who takes over if a president cannot fulfill his duties. Until recent years, there were no detailed provisions. But in 1967 the states ratified the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for an orderly transition. Under the amendment, a president who is incapacitated may turn the reins of his office over to the vice-president, who becomes acting president.
The amendment also permits the vice-president and a majority of either the "principal officers" of the executive departments or of a body of officials picked by Congress to declare that the president is unable to perform his duties. The vice-president then takes over as acting president.
If a president disputes the declaration, Congress is given final authority to hand the reins to the vice-president. A two-thirds majority is required.
The 25th Amendment makes no change in the federal law for succession if a president has died, resigned, or been removed. In such a case, if the vice-president cannot take over, then the speaker of the House of Representatives is next in line, followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Cabinet members, beginning with the secretaries of state, treasury, and defense and ending with the secretary of transportation.
President Reagan has provided additional precautions. According to a White House spokesman, he has approved an order for "automatic assumption of command authority" for military purposes.
That order would give the vice-president, and next the secretary of defense, power to make military decisions if the president is not available. The order, which is not a federal law or constitutional change, would not affect presidential succession.
The contingency plan was not put into effect March 30, White House officials said, because it was not necessary.