For several years, Maryland’s Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin (District 8) has been pursuing the idea that Congress should have a role in putting in motion the constitutional process for dealing with a disabled or mentally unfit president. The storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters last Wednesday may have pushed that idea closer to a reality.
Among the methods House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the House may be considering this week, if President Trump does not resign in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot, is the Raskin proposal, to create an “Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity.” It would provide a means to have a mental and physical exam of a sitting president to decide whether the person in the Oval Office “lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to execute the powers and duties of the office of President.”
Ever since the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967, with the aim of clarifying the line of succession to the presidency, it has been up to the nation’s Vice President and the presidential Cabinet to invoke that amendment. While Congress would have a role later in the process, if the No. 2 official and the Cabinet secretaries in the Executive Branch did not raise the issue, it would not come up at all.
The Amendment, however, has always left open the prospect that Congress could assert itself at the outset, and to do so without a formal amendment of the Twenty-Fifth. The existing language provides that, as an alternative to the Cabinet, Congress could pass a law to create “such other body” as it wished. It does not say where in the government that alternative body would be placed, but Rep. Raskin’s proposal would make it explicitly a part of Congress.
While the language of the bill (which apparently would now be considered as it has been rewritten rather than in a new version) does not mention how the new commission would work with the Vice President, it does not appear that the Vice President could be shut out completely from the initiation process. The Amendment quite plainly says that the Vice President is to be involved, either with the Cabinet or some other body set up by Congress.
It is no doubt the purpose of the Raskin approach, however, to put very heavy pressure on the Vice President if the new congressional commission were to produce a report concluding that a sitting president could not perform the duties of the office. Moreover, the bill as drafted would put considerable pressure on the sitting president to submit to the medical examination, because it specifies that a refusal to submit to it would be taken into account as a factor in what the commission concluded.
The Raskin proposal, by the way, could not be vetoed by President Trump if it were adopted by the House and the Senate, because the bill is in the form only of a “concurrent resolution” – that is, an internal measure within Congress, not requiring a presidential signature.
While Speaker Pelosi has talked of the Raskin bill as part of the strategy for dealing promptly with President Trump in the wake of the Capitol riot, Congress may not be able to push the measure through both the House and Senate in time, since Trump has only 11 more days to serve. But the House leadership obviously considers the mere consideration of the idea as another form of pressure on Trump to try to induce him to resign. The ignominy of being found unfit by an official government agency could have some effect, the House leaders apparently believe.
It would take some time to create the commission and select 11 members to sit on it, but presumably that could be done with dispatch if the measure were to be passed.
A potential roadblock, of course, could be the Senate, as long as it remains under Republican leadership, until January 20. It could well be seen as only an anti-Trump idea, and GOP lawmakers may not regard it as a reform that needs to be adopted right away.
In the meantime, Vice President Pence’s office has been sending mixed public signals on whether he would attempt, with a majority of the Cabinet, to initiate a claim of incapacity at this time. Before the weekend, the word from his associates was that he would not even consider invoking the Amendment, but the word on Saturday was that he had not foreclosed the idea altogether.
It now appears to be up to the House to decide whether to take the first step toward challenging President Trump, with plans to introduce one or more articles of impeachment on Monday.