Democracies pride themselves on their efficient transfer of power from one elected leader to the next. But death or disability can strike a leader and cause immediate crisis.
The world marveled at the smooth and prompt manner in which Japan accommodated the sudden recent illness of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and immediately elected Yoshiro Mori to the post.
But Japan was lucky. The circumstances of the prime minister’s illness were clear, and there was a successor groomed and positioned. It may not always be so easy or so clear-cut.
When U.S. President John Kennedy was killed in Dallas back in 1963, the United States made the transition to President Lyndon Johnson easily and quickly. The U.S. Constitution is clear and direct. The vice president replaces the president whenever a vacancy occurs in the office, for any reason.
But when Johnson made his initial speech to the nation a few days later, the vision of America’s leadership team sent shivers up the nation’s spine. There was Johnson speaking from the well of the Congress with his two designated successors sitting behind him. John McCormack, as speaker of the House of Representatives, was first in the designated line of succession and the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, Carl Hayden, was second behind him.
The problem was simple. Johnson had suffered a serious heart attack a few years previously when he was a U.S. senator and had been absent from his Senate duties for months. McCormack was in his mid-70s, and had a pale, gaunt appearance that made him look physically vulnerable. Hayden was much older — in his mid-80s by then — and looked every day of it.
The picture of that event caused an immediate response from the public. Under the leadership of Sen. Birch Bayh, the Congress went to work and provided the nation with a solution to the succession problem and also put in place a procedure to deal with the even more delicate problem of presidential disability. The work became the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides an excellent guideline for the resolution of similar situations.
Succession was an easy question for the lawmakers to solve. They determined to provide a method to replace the vice president whenever that office became vacant, either by the succession of that official to the presidency, as in Johnson’s case, or when the vice president should expire or resign, as in the case of Vice President Spiro Agnew — the first vice president to serve after the ratification of the amendment.
The question of transferring power from an elected president is a very serious matter. It can be necessary when the president knows he will be unable to perform his duties, as when he might be under anesthesia for an operation. That is an easy case. He can simply transfer his power on a temporary basis to his vice president with a simple document for a specified time.
But the really sticky situation is where the president may be injured or ill or mentally impaired and therefore unable to function. How should such a decision be made? It was a debate that the U.S. Congress conducted for more than a year before reaching a consensus on the procedure that was adopted as a part of the 25th Amendment.
There were several important principles to accommodate:
* Under the separation of powers in the U.S., it was important that the act of declaring an involuntary disability be done within the executive branch of the government. Neither Congress nor the courts should be involved.
* The benefit of all doubt should be given to the elected president. The decision should be made to protect his position to the degree possible.
* Outside experts should be available, but should not make the decision. The problem of allowing a separate group of doctors or experts to decide sets up the problem of who and how that group is selected.
Eventually, consensus was achieved to empower the president’s Cabinet to make the decision. The Cabinet was seen as the closest political team to the president. He would have selected them and named them to their offices.
U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy initially opposed this alternative because, from his his personal experience, the U.S. president does not necessarily know his Cabinet very well. In his brother’s case, the senator said only two of his original Cabinet were people that he had known well: himself, the attorney general, and Abe Ribicoff, the secretary of health and welfare, who was from a neighboring state to Kennedy’s.
Eventually, Kennedy was supportive, and the amendment was adopted. The amendment has been used quite often, both to replace the vice president and to accommodate the temporary incapacity of the chief executive. The involuntary-transfer provisions are yet to be tested, but they are there, with their safeguards, to guide the nation to a safe landing in difficult times.
The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a good model for study by Japan as scholars and politicians look for answers to the problems that have been highlighted by the sudden incapacity of former Prime Minister Obuchi.
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