Pelosi Remarks at Press Conference on Introduction of Legislation to Establish a Commission on Presidential Capacity
Washington, D.C. – Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) for a press conference to discuss the introduction of the Commission on Presidential Capacity to Discharge the Powers and Duties of Office Act. The legislation would create the Commission on Presidential Capacity to Discharge the Powers and Duties of Office, the body and process called for in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to enable Congress to help ensure effective and uninterrupted leadership in the highest office in the Executive branch of government. Below is a full transcript:
Speaker Pelosi. Thank you for being here. I’m really honored to have Congressman Raskin to lead us through his legislation, which is so very important. So, I hope you will prepare yourself for a civics lesson or a presentation on the Constitution of the United States.
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967 after the assassination of President Kennedy with strong bipartisan support. Members of Congress have a duty to take all necessary action to preserve continuity of government and protect the stability and integrity of our democracy for the future. That is why, today, again, it is my honor to welcome Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a constitutional scholar, as he introduces legislation to establish a commission on presidential capacity to discharge the duties and – powers and duties of the office.
This is not about President Trump. He will face the judgment of the voters, but he shows the need for us to create a process for future presidents.
Throughout America’s history our leaders have created and strengthened guardrails in the Constitution to ensure stability and continuity of government in times of crisis. The 25th Amendment creates a path preserving stability if a president suffers a crippling physical or mental problem and is, in the Amendment, ‘Unable to discharge the powers and duties off his office and transfers his powers.’ Specifically, Section IV of the Amendment empowers Congress to set up an independent body to confront such a crisis.
Congress has a constitutional duty to lay out the process by which a president’s incapacity and the president of any party is determined. This bill honors the duty by creating a standing commission of top former executive officials and medical experts selected in a bipartisan, bicameral way.
A president's fitness for office must be determined by science and facts. This legislation applies to future Presidents, but we are reminded by the necessity of action by the health of the current President. With this bill, the Congress honors our oath to support and defend the Constitution and protect the American people, and we uphold our responsibility to preserve the republic for generations to come.
Now, it's my honor to yield to the distinguished gentleman from Maryland, a constitutional authority, by teaching it, honoring it and, again, legislating to honor our Constitution. Congressman Raskin, thank you for your leadership.
Congressman Raskin. Madam Speaker, thank you very much. I’m honored by your words, and thank you for inviting me to present to the press this legislation.
In times of chaos, we must hold fast to our Constitution. The 25th Amendment is all about the stability of the presidency and the continuity of the office. It’s a tool that was adopted by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate in 1965 and overwhelming bipartisan majorities of state legislatures, three quarters of whom passed it in 1967.
The 25th Amendment is designed to guarantee the continuing peaceful transfer of power in our country. The principal authors of the amendment, like Senators Birch Bayh and Robert F. Kennedy and Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York, wanted to resolve basic questions about stability, continuity and succession in the Office of the Presidency. So, Section I establishes that if the presidency is vacant, the vice president becomes the president, and believe or not, that was ambiguous at the time.
Section II establishes that if the vice presidency is vacant, the president nominates a vice president, and by concurrent majority vote of the House and Senate, that nominee becomes the vice president.
Section III established a process for the temporary transfer of power by a president who is incapacitated by transmitting to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House a statement establishing a temporary disability. And this has happened multiple times with various presidents, including President Reagan who transferred powers to Vice President Bush when he underwent colorectal surgery.
Now, Section IV deals with the problem of a president who becomes incapacitated but has made no provision to temporarily transfer powers, meaning, in the words of Senator Birch Bayh that, ‘The president is unable either to make or to communicate his decisions as to his own competency to execute the powers and duty off his office.’
In that case, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet or the vice president and such other body that may be established by Congress may determine that there is presidential incapacity and notify the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House of that that inability to conduct the powers and duties of office. In that case, the powers would be transferred to the vice president.
Now, if you read Section IV, you will see that the president has the opportunity to object, that he actually can conduct the powers despite what the vice president and these bodies are saying. And ultimately, there would be a vote of the House and the Senate, and it requires two thirds to side with the vice president. So, it is made procedurally difficult to make sure that this is only for the most extreme situations where you have a president who cannot fulfill the functions of the office.
Now, it has never been necessary, but the authors of the 25th Amendment thought it essential in the nuclear age to have a safety valve option. And they often said, we have 535 Members of Congress, but we only have one president. In the age of COVID-19, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and now ravaged the White House staff, the wisdom of the 25th Amendment is clear.
What happens if a president, any president ends up in a coma or on a ventilator and has made no provisions for the temporary transfer of power, under Section III? Who has the powers of the presidency at that point? Is it the chief of staff? Is it the vice president? Is it the secretary of state? This situation is what demands action under Section IV.
I wish that Congress had set up this permanent body 50 years ago. It did not do it, but we do need to do this, certainly in the next Congress. The framers of the 25th Amendment knew that you could not always count on the Cabinet to act, and so Congress has a role to play and that role must be totally bicameral and totally bipartisan. And the legislation that I introduced today seeks to establish a sixteen member commission that could act in the event of such an emergency and a chair, a seventeenth member chosen by the sixteen members themselves
Eight members are chosen, half by Republican leaders and half by Democratic leaders, from medical personnel, physicians and other medical authorities. The other eight members are drawn from the ranks of former high-ranking Executive branch officers, including former presidents, vice presidents, attorneys general, secretaries of defense, treasury and state and surgeon general.
So, the commission is entirely bipartisan, and of course under the 25th Amendment, it can act only in concert with the vice president who is the key actor under the 25th Amendment.
So, the Constitution is designed to give us the tools that we need to deal with the many crises of human affairs that can affect the continuity of democratic self-government.
We are in the middle of a momentous election, and as the Speaker said, and people will decide that. But when we get through this, the problem that we are talking about today is something serious we will have to face. And I am delighted to introduce this legislation and to answer any questions you may have.
* * *
Q: Mr. Raskin, Madam Speaker, can you address the concern here with this commission, number one the idea that medical professionals will, on this commission, would not have examined the president. There are ethical issues as to whether or not that is appropriate, for them to rule or make a judgment on the president's health if they have not done that. And number two, you say this is something in the future Congress should address and the Speaker said this is not about this President. How can we read that at this point in time, when you talk about COVID-19, as not being about?
Congressman Raskin. So, I will answer the first question and let the Speaker take the second. The legislation sets up a process by which Congress, through concurrent votes in the House and the Senate could direct the commission to conduct a medical exam of the president and that would include whatever the members of the commission think is necessary to determine whether or not there is an incapacity.
If the president refuses and the president would have a right to refuse, that could be taken into account by the commission, which would have to rule based on all of the other evidence it has.
Speaker Pelosi. Again, this is not about any judgment anybody has about somebody's behavior. This is about a diagnosis, a professional medical diagnosis. Let me just back up for a second, just to put personal here. When this happened, it was after the assassination of President Kennedy, and you may not know this, you were not born yet, but there was no – when Lyndon Johnson became President, there was no vice president. And if anything had happened to President Johnson and his health was not the greatest, the Speaker of the House would have become the President of the United States.
So, this sets up how you would elect another – a vice president – a, how a vice president would be chosen by the president, but voted upon by the House and Senate. And of course, this is what happened with Gerald Ford. After Spiro Agnew, all of that, he was appointed vice president, very popular in the Congress on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol, Gerald Ford.
I take – I love the story about how that happened because on his 90th birthday, Gerald Ford came to the House, which is where he sprang from. I said, ‘Mr. President, I am so honored to serve.’ I was Minority Leader at the time. ‘I am so honored to serve in the position that you served in,’ and he said, ‘I served with your father. I served with your father.’ And he started to tell me stories about that. When he died, I was the incoming Speaker, and we had the honor of opening up the Speaker’s Office and all the rest, even though I wasn’t going to be sworn in for a day or two but had possession of the Speaker’s Office open to his family, who, at the time he was Minority Leader, that is where he presided and again where his children came and did their homework and all the rest.
So, we have a real personal connection to Gerald Ford who filled this spot as determined by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. We can do a couple things at once. We can engage in our political activity for the public to make its verdict 25 days from now, and at the same time honor our responsibilities to have something in place that does not apply to this President, but certainly raises the issue if a president – and this is not with bad intentions – if a president becomes incapacitated by stroke, or on ventilation, whatever it happens to be, he would not have the ability, as Ronald Reagan had, as President George Herbert Walker Bush had, as President George W. Bush had, to make a judgment, for this period of time, I transfer the power.
So, this sets up a formula. It's not for any of us to decide that. It's about a process to decide it, and as the distinguished gentleman said, without the vice president – the vice president is crucial to this and that would be a vice president of the president’s party.
Q: Madam Speaker, just a few weeks ago or a week or two ago you were toying with the idea of impeachment. Now, you’re talking about –
Speaker Pelosi. I was what? That did not exist. Another question?
Q: You were toying with the idea of impeachment
Speaker Pelosi. I was not toying with the idea of impeachment, so let’s not have a predicate that did not exist. Another question, because that is based on a false – yes sir.
Q: Madam Speaker, I am just curious about the timing. Why introduce this legislation now? Why not wait until the new session of Congress? Things may have changed, may have a clearer view of the arc of the legislation and the Congress. Wouldn't it be easier when the decks are cleared just to wait until the next session?
Speaker Pelosi. No, we want to be ready, and it takes time. And there has been a call for why not execute the 25th Amendment. That's not what we are doing. We're saying, let us – Congress exert the power that the Constitution gave it. Jamie, did you want to speak to that?
Congressman Raskin. It's interesting that when I found the body had never been set up, and I guess the reason is that there's never a good time to do it because it's always seen just in its local circumstance as opposed to the need to have this institutionally.
So, I guess I would say the situation has focused everyone's mind on the needs for following through on this suggestion in the 25th Amendment that Congress set up its own body. And I think, again, in the age of COVID-19, where a lot of government actors have been afflicted by it, we need to act.
Q: To my colleague’s question, I mean this is a President who has been impeached. You have made comments in recent days suggesting that you think that his mental state might be affected by the drugs that he is on. What do you say to those who see what you’re doing now and say, ‘Aha, this is just another attempt to go around the public and try to get rid of this President through a way that is not an election?’
Speaker Pelosi. Well, let me first say, what I said about the President and the drugs was there are those who believe that taking certain medications can affect your judgment. I don't know. And so, let’s say what I actually said: I don’t know. That’s what I said on a call with my Members. So, you may have gotten it through several times removed.
There are those, medical professionals, who say that certain medications can impair judgment. I don't know. And this is not – I appreciate your question because this is really important. It's not any of us making a judgment about the President's well-being. It’s about this respected, bipartisan – both aspects of it, the medical side of it and the dignitary, statesman side of it are selected by, equally by the Speaker and the Leader, the Speaker – the Leader, the Leader in a bipartisan way and the vice president is crucial to that.
When we do legislation, it is important to socialize it, so that people understand why, so that – we would like to have it in place. And it could be said for future presidencies. If the President wins this election, yes, it would apply to him. If he doesn't, it would apply to the next president of the United States.
But this isn’t about anything to say we have to do something like this about the election. It’s not about the election at all, and I thank the distinguished gentleman from Maryland for this. This has – we could have done this a long while back. But the timing is for now, because people want to know. We have to get some comfort to people that there is a way to do this, very respectful, not making a judgment on the basis of a comment or behavior we don’t like, but based on a medical decision, again with the full involvement of the Vice President of the United States.
Q: Would that concede then that the President has not met the threshold for invoking the 25th Amendment?
Speaker Pelosi. I don’t understand the question.
Q: Would you concede that the President has not met the threshold for invoking the 25th Amendment?
Speaker Pelosi. That’s not for us to decide. That’s not for us to decide.
Congressman Raskin. Yeah, I mean, the whole point is – look – we understand in politics people point fingers back and forth, but the issues raised are of such gravity and central importance to the nature of our government that we’ve got to think of this in constitutional terms. And this is why we need to set up an institution composed in a bipartisan fashion, bicameral fashion that will be able to make judgments, whether it is five months from now, five years from now, 50 years from now, whatever it may be.
We are living in an age of a lot of chaos. You know, I want to say I appreciate what the Speaker has to go through on a daily basis dealing with the chaos of politics, which has been made especially intense recently, and I appreciate her seeing that we need to create some constitutional and institutional foundations for dealing with the chaos. And our forebearers who wrote the 25th, gave us the tools that we need to deal with this kind of crisis.
Speaker Pelosi. Our common ground with the American people is the Constitution of the United States. It has always been gratifying for me, gratifying, to go around the country and no matter Democrats or Republicans, right or left or whatever, but the Constitution, the rules are what really do unify us. And this is a comfort to people, that it's not about who is in power saying I don’t like the way he or she is acting. It's about a process that is bipartisan, based in the Constitution, giving Congress the power to do this, which Congress hasn’t done, and, again, at a time when people understand there it has – there is a necessity for it.
But, again, to your question. It isn’t about any of us making a decision as to whether the 25th Amendment should be invoked. That's totally not the point. That’s not up to us, that’s not up to us.
But I do go back to Mr. Raskin’s point. Just put yourself in a situation and your responsibilities to your family. So that if you suffer a stroke or COVID and go to ventilation and all the rest of it, and are not capable of making decisions for your family. Just because it is unforeseen, accidental, whatever happens, wouldn’t you have, in advance, liked to have had a plan for your family? Even if it is temporary, even if it’s temporary, God willing, that would be in place. So, that’s what this is.
Q: Madam Speaker, on a related note, do you think –
Q: Madam Speaker, are you suggesting, are you suggesting –
Speaker Pelosi. We can take one more, because I have my day job.
Q: Thanks, Madam Speaker. You’re suggesting that President Trump has an altered state of mind? What are the indications of that? And if I may, you recently commented on U.K. Brexit policy. Do you think Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an example of somebody whose capacity to govern is reduced by the coronavirus?
Speaker Pelosi. I have no idea, nor do I have of President Trump. I just said he – clearly, he is under medication. Any of us who is under medication of that seriousness –
Q: What are the implications of it?
Speaker Pelosi. Is in an altered state. He has bragged about the medication that he has taken. And again, there are articles by medical professionals saying this could, as I said earlier, could have an impact on judgment.
I don’t have the faintest idea about Boris Johnson, but I am glad that you brought up the subject because I think we have to be very careful about what in the U.K., the – we have very stringent rules in terms of the Food and Drug Administration here about the number of clinical trials and the timing, the number of people and all the rest, so that when a drug is approved by the FDA and the advisory – Scientific Advisory Committee, that it is safe and efficacious, then it will have the trust of the American people to take it.
Vaccines are about trust, we want people to take it. So, we pray that it is soon, the sooner, the better, not one day sooner than it is safe and efficacious, but not one day later either. And my concern is that the U.K. system for that kind of judgment is not on a par with ours in the United States. So, if Boris Johnson decides he’s going to approve a drug and this President decides he’s going to embrace it, that’s the concern that I have about any similarities between the two.
Thank you all.