It’s humbling, if not downright embarrassing, how much I never knew. Almost as embarrassing as some of the Amendments we actually had to write, in the 20th century, no less. At one time, in some states, Americans had to pay to vote. What?
It was called the poll tax, and it originated in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as a means of countering the gains that African Americans had made under the law, beginning with emancipation from slavery and ending in the right for all men, of any color, to vote. Charging a fee for voting was overtly engineered to keep the newest eligible voters from exercising their right, and it remained lawful to do so for decades, until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
That was Section 1 of the Amendment. Section 2 was the usual “and if we have to write more laws to ensure that, we will” language. We just can’t be trusted, can we?
Think about the time scales here. The United States became a nation in 1776, with a fully ratified Constitution in 1989. While the Declaration of Independence opened with the famous assertion that “all men are created equal” (a statement already focused on just one half of the population), it took 89 years to Constitutionally decree the end of American slavery, and another five years to grant voting rights to men of all races. It only took 20 years after that for some states to being charging a fee to vote, but it took 74 years for us to say as a nation that was no longer acceptable, via the 24th Amendment. And then it took another two years for the Supreme Court to rule that poll taxes were unconstitutional at all levels of government (by citing the 14th Amendment; the 24th Amendment only applies to federal elections). And I haven’t even talked about gender yet… that’s another Amendment, and a future post. For those of you scoring at home, that’s a total of 190 years to get it all straightened out.
And of course, it’s fairly easy to construct an argument that we’re not really done yet. It didn’t take long after the 1960’s for laws to change regarding the influence money can have on election campaigns – which may have more than canceled out the gains of the 14th Amendment and others like it. We’re also gaming the system with redistricting and continual changes to the state laws surrounding elections. It may never truly end; if there is one thing about which humans have been consistent throughout recorded history, it is the sheer terror of losing power once it’s been gained. People with the means will pay hefty prices to avoid that, but in the end we are all stuck with the bill.
Checks and balances. That phrase describes one of the most important aspects of the United States Government – undoubtedly born from a deep desire to avoid the tyranny that characterized British rule of the colonies before they declared their independence. Checks and balances are the way we try, as best we can, to avoid any one person or small group of people from gaining too much power over the course of the nation at any given time. But whether spoken or unspoken, purposefully or subconsciously, those in power are continually trying to defeat checks and balances, because, well… they know they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Most of us can relate to that.
A healthy tension between the three branches of our government generally means a healthy country. It may seem in that case like nothing ever gets done, but sadly that is often preferable to too many one-sided things getting done. The best breakthroughs in government happen when all three branches work together – and often that has taken shape as Amendments to our Constitution. The 25th Amendment is a good example: what do we do with succession of leadership in the executive branch?
The original Constitution did speak to presidential succession in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.
There are a few areas of ambiguity there: it does not speak to succession of the vice presidency, nor to what extent or how long the Vice President retains the powers of the President. It also doesn’t define the range of conditions that would lead to “the Removal of the President from Office”. Impeachment, of course, is once such condition, but are there others? The ambiguities in turn led to a few periods of confusion in our history. When William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841, his Vice President John Tyler took over, and Tyler argued he was the President, not just the “Acting President”. Woodrow Wilson was secretly unable to fulfill his powers for the last several months of his presidency due to a stroke (this would seem unlikely to happen in today’s Twitter-driven society). And many vice presidencies have been vacated over the years, with no clear and consistent way of defining the replacement.
The 25th Amendment, passed in 1965 and ratified in 1967, has four sections that attempt to clarify the picture when a President or Vice President is “Control-X-ed”…
Section 1 clarifies the Harrison/Tyler conundrum – ok, fairly straightforward, and this was invoked when Gerald Ford took over for Richard Nixon in 1974:
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 2 extends the clarification to the vice presidency – again, fairly straightforward, and this was invoked twice – once when Ford assumed the vice presidency under Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned, and again when Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President:
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3 makes it equally clear how the President can confer his powers onto the Vice President when he or she agrees to be unfit for the office at a given time – this has since been invoked by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush due to medical procedures:
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.
Section 4 is where the Constitutional deuce hits the turbine – what if the President doesn’t want to go but it really is time? This has not yet been invoked:
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.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days 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. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
If you’ve been listening to the political dialogue over the past couple of years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the 25th Amendment discussed, and the focus has been on Section 4. This is just another example of how high the tensions are between the parties and the branches of government right now – perhaps as high as they have been since the Civil War. In this polarized atmosphere, it is not surprising that the 25th Amendment has been raised, nor is it out of the question that it could even be invoked at some point. There have been, and there will be again, political leaders that refuse to go quietly. I’m not going to speak here about arguments for or against in the current situation. But we can probably all agree that an invocation of the 25th Amendment would create an even uglier Washington than the one we currently see. In many ways, the 25th Amendment touches the envelope of how far a democratic republic can be pushed. The question now is whether other forces will take us to that same place – and if they do, invocation of the 25th Amendment would only be the beginning of the story.