Regardless of who wins the 2020 presidential election, the US will officially have the oldest person to ever begin a term as president. While advanced age does not mean an individual is unfit to govern, there are physical and mental maladies that afflict older individuals with greater frequency and the office of president is a rigorous job. There have been rumblings of invoking the 25th amendment from opponents of Donald Trump before he took office and similar rumblings beginning from opponents of Joe Biden now. Both groups generally cite mental health issues. My question is NOT about the validity of any of the claims of unfitness or who is saying what and why. What I would like to understand more clearly is the process that would take place if an elected president maintains that they are fit for office, but the general consensus among members of congress is that they are not. To unseat a president who is determined to stay would require the use of Section 4 of the 25th amendment, which states:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

The VP is obviously essential to the process. The next part is where I have a question because it is an 'either...or' clause. Nearly everything I have read suggests that the cabinet would have to side with the VP before congress would be involved, but the language in the constitution seems to suggest that congress could act in concert with the VP, without regard to the disposition of the cabinet. One comment on an answer to this question reads it that way. These are my questions about the rules and the process:

  1. If the president's cabinet sides with the president, could the VP and congress convene some 'other body' to make a determination of fitness and by what laws is that body bound?
  2. Since congress makes the laws, could they pass new laws in the moment that would allow them to convene a group of people willing to declare the president unfit at their behest?
  3. Does the VP/Congress have to provide a specific reason with clear evidence or can they simply declare the president unfit and have the VP take over?
  4. If congress has a 2/3 majority vote subsequent to the 'written declaration', is there any appeal option for the president or does the VP become the president for the current term?
  • Should be noted that the claims re Trump's mental unfitness had nothing to do with his age.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 17:08
  • @jamesqf: That's untrue. Compare Trump's current public speech with his public appearances from (say) the 1990s, and the signs of age-related deterioration are clear. Without clinical evaluation, it's difficult to say whether this deterioration is in the 'normal' or 'abnormal' range, or to disentangle potential signs of dementia from other potential psychological problems (i.e., we don't know enough to do a differential diagnosis of dementia from clinical narcissism), but the main effects are clear enough. Remember, Biden is only three years older than Trump, and in far better health. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 19:25
  • @Ted Wrigley: I don't think so. Without getting into specifics that'd get this deleted, he has displayed those qualities since his youth. See for instance published excerpts from Mary Trump's "Too Much and Never Enough".
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 5:19
  • That's why I said the differential diagnosis is difficult. The narcissism and aggression he's displayed since his youth; the disconnected speech patterns, vagueness, and difficulties with speech production are recent developments. I'm not suggesting he's entering into dementia (though I can't rule it out), just that he's nowhere near as 'crisp' and focused as he was 20 years ago. But what is that: cognitive decline? stress? poor diet, bad sleep habits, and an excess of diet cokes? some combination of the above? Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 5:37
  • @jamesqf: forgot to tag you... Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 5:43

1 Answer 1


Taken at face value, the phrase "or of such other body as Congress may by law provide" means that it is within Congress' power to write law which establishes an agency or other body whose purpose it is to evaluate the president's capacity to execute the powers of his office. There are no explicit limitations placed on the nature or substance of this body, aside from a general presumption that the body be a permanent institution (as opposed, say, to an ad hoc committee formed to evaluate a specific president). If Congress were to do this, they would most likely create either a permanent bipartisan committee of the House or Senate, or an independent committee of medical or policy professionals attached to some other agency. Note that because this body would rarely meet, it likely wouldn't have a dedicated set of members; it would consist of assorted professionals already employed in other agencies or capacities within the military or government.

The intention of this amendment was to clarify the order of succession, not to specify the nature of 'incapacity', and to date it has only been used four times, twice to appoint a vice president — when Spiro Agnew resigned as Richard Nixon's VP and Nixon appointed Gerald Ford, and when Ford took the presidency after Nixon's resignation and appointed Nelson Rockefeller as VP — and twice to temporarily shift power to the vice president when presidents Reagan and W Bush underwent surgical procedures. The wording in this clause doesn't seem to indicate any pressing need to take this power away from the cabinet; it's more as though the authors of the amendment thought Congress might someday want to relieve the cabinet of a task they are not eminently suited for.

  • Section 3 was also invoked by Bush to give Cheney the powers of the presidency while he underwent a Colonoscopy. And, in an odd bit of symmetry, arguably H.W. Bush was granted the powers by Reagan while he underwent a surgery to a remove a potentially cancerous growth in his colon; but some consider that as a matter of technicality he didn't invoke the 25th properly, and so Bush may not have ever had these powers. Not that it was relevant in either case, but it's been invoked at least three times, not twice. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 7:17
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    Actually, make that at least 4 times: (1) Ford is appointed and confirmed as VP after Agnew resigns; (2) Ford replaces Nixon as President after Nixon resigns; (3) Rockefeller is appointed and confirmed as VP after Ford becomes President; (4) Cheney becomes acting President while Bush has a colonoscopy. None of which were covered by section 4, the section in question. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 8:31
  • FWIW, in the UK, such a body is specified in law to determine if the monarch is currently unfit to carry out their job. Under the Regency Act 1937, a committee of 5 - identified by their jobs, since they're unlikely to meet often - is specified. As far as I'm aware, this committee has never met. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 8:55
  • @zibadawatimmy: Well, I'm not sure that temporarily delegating power to the VP counts as anything more than a publicity stunt — the president rarely encounters situations that demand his immediate attention — but I get your point. I'll add it into the answer. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 16:58
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    Note that Congress would not be able to create such a body alone (unless they could override a veto). "by law" would indicate that it would have to go through the usual bicameral legislation and presentment process. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 22:19

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