President George Bush's recent brush with disability and the renewed controversy concerning Vice President Dan Quayle's fitness to be president illuminate a little understood aspect of the U.S. Constitution: during the last two centuries, no institution of government has been more affected by constitutional amendments than the vice presidency.
The multifaceted 25th Amendment, which was enacted in 1967, both testifies and has contributed to the modern significance of the office of vice president.
During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the amendment's presidential disability procedures have been of most immediate concern. President Bush even revealed his intention to invoke one of those procedures last Sunday night. The White House press secretary announced that if Mr. Bush's doctors decided that he should undergo a general anesthetic on Monday morning, the president would sign over his powers and duties to Mr. Quayle. He would do so by writing a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate, as Section 3 of the 25th Amendment requires. Then, as soon as Mr. Bush recovered, he would reclaim his powers and duties by writing a second letter to the two congressional leaders.
Fortunately, the president's doctors prescribed a course of treatment that entailed no loss of consciousness. But Mr. Bush's careful attention to his responsibilities under Section 3 nonetheless stands in sharp contrast to the approach of his immediate predecessor. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ignored the 25th Amendment during the extended recovery period that followed his severe gunshot injury by the assassin John Hinckley.
Four years later, on the eve of cancer surgery, Mr. Reagan signed over his powers and duties to then-Vice President Bush in a grudging letter which actually asserted that the 25th Amendment did not apply to the transfer.
Section 4 of the 25th Amendment provides for a different, potentially nightmarish scenario: a physically or mentally disabled president who refuses (or is unable) to sign over the powers and duties of the office to the vice president. Should such a scenario arise, the amendment calls upon the vice president and a majority of the president's cabinet to transfer the powers and duties of the presidency to the vice president. If they did so over the president's objections, the 25th Amendment requires Congress to decide who is in charge.
The amendment's second section also bespeaks the importance the modern vice presidency. It creates a procedure to fill vacancies in the office, which previously had remained unfilled. Prior to 1967, seven vice presidential deaths, one vice presidential resignation and eight presidential deaths had left the nation without a vice president during 16 of 36 presidential administrations. Section 2 stipulates that, in the modern era, such vacancies are intolerable: the president shall nominate a new vice president when a vacancy in the office occurs, subject to confirmation by both houses of Congress.
Soon after the 25th Amendment was enacted, the new vice presidential selection procedure was quickly employed in circumstances its authors scarcely had imagined. In 1973, Vice President (and former Maryland governor) Spiro T. Agnew resigned as part of a plea bargain agreement with Justice Department officials who otherwise would have prosecuted him on bribery and income tax evasion charges. President Richard Nixon appointed House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford to replace Vice President Agnew.
Less than a year later, Mr. Ford succeeded to the presidency when Mr. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment on Watergate-related charges. President Ford in turn chose former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to be the vice president.
The remaining section of the 25th Amendment (Section 1) states explicitly what previously had only been asserted, namely, that the vice president shall become president for the remainder of the president's four-year term if the president dies, resigns or is impeached and removed from office. Vice President John Tyler had made that claim when William Henry Harrison, the first president not to complete his term, died in 1841. Although Mr. Tyler's action set the precedent for similar occurrences in the future, recent scholarship attests that the framers of the Constitution intended that the vice president would only become acting president until a special election could be called.
To the extent that the 25th Amendment empowered the vice presidency by acknowledging and enhancing the vice president's importance as the constitutional successor to the president, it was partially undoing the disastrous effects on the office of the 12th Amendment, which was enacted in 1804.
The 12th Amendment remedied a defect in the electoral college method of choosing the president and the vice president. In its original constitutional form, the electoral college required each presidential elector to vote for two candidates for president. The candidate with the most electoral votes became the president; the second-place finisher -- presumably, the second most qualified person in the country to be the president -- became the vice president.
As a consequence, prestige (if not power) was attached to the vice presidency. The first and second vice presidents -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively -- went on to be elected as the second and third presidents.
However benign the original electoral college's effects on the vice presidency, problems developed as soon as political parties formed and began to nominate candidates for both president and vice president. In 1800, when the electors of Mr. Jefferson's Democratic-Republican party cast their two votes for him and for the party's vice presidential nominee, Aaron Burr, the result was a tie vote -- for president -- between the two candidates.
The 12th Amendment separated the electors' presidential and vice presidential ballots, which prevented a recurrence of the near fiasco of 1800. (Mr. Jefferson had to be elected by the House.) But in doing so, the amendment inadvertently stripped the vice presidency of its status as the office awarded to the runnerup in the presidential election. From 1804 until well into the 20th century, the vice presidency was little more than the final political resting place for a rogues' gallery of has-beens and never-wases. Attracting competent candidates to stand for the office was difficult: as Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, declining the vice presidential place on the Whig party ticket in 1848, said, "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead."
Just as the 12th Amendment unintentionally robbed the vice presidency of its political status, the 22nd Amendment unintentionally served as a restorative. The "two-term limit" amendment, which became part of the Constitution in 1951, was aimed at the presidency. One of the amendment's surprising consequences, however, was to free up the vice president to spend the president's entire second term preparing his own campaign for the party's presidential nomination.
Since 1951, all three vice presidents who served presidents who could not (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan) or would not (Lyndon B. Johnson) run for reelection went on to win their party's nomination for president: Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, and Mr. Bush in 1988. If Mr. Bush is reelected in 1992 with Mr. Quayle on the ticket, the controversial vice president will have the best opportunity he ever could imagine to run for president.
The enactment of the 12th, 22nd, and 25th amendments has left the urge to tinker with the vice presidency undiminished.
Some would have all vice presidents be appointed, as two already have been under Section 2 of the 25th Amendment. Others would repeal that section altogether. Still others would assign the vice president's constitutional powers in the executive branch.
Few have gone as far as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who since the Agnew vice presidency has advocated that the office be abolished. But Mr. Schlesinger can be forgiven for feeling that the events of last week will attract converts to his position.
Michael Nelson teaches political science at Vanderbilt University; next month, he joins the faculty of Rhodes College. He is the author of several books and articles on the American executive, including a Twentieth Century Fund-sponsored study of the vice presidency, A Heartbeat Away.