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Transfer Power While Awaiting Judgment

Politics: The 25th Amendment allows the Cabinet to temporarily suspend the president. It's a good move.

September 15, 1998|JOSEPH P. DUGGAN | Joseph P. Duggan was a speechwriter for President George Bush and a United Nations' diplomat during the Reagan administration

The presidency of the United States is leaderless. This office, the most powerful in a world threatened by serious economic and security crises, will remain empty of real authority until Bill Clinton either steps aside to make way for an orderly succession, is removed from office through the impeachment process, or--in a scenario scarcely plausible--somehow reestablishes his credibility.

After the exposure of his dishonest and degrading conduct in the White House, Americans should cringe at the thought of Clinton retaining command over our military forces and foreign policy. The humiliation and harm to American national interests will be compounded if Clinton follows through with plans to travel to New York Sept. 21 to meet with world leaders and address the United Nations General Assembly. Neither our allies nor our adversaries have any basis on which to trust or respect Clinton.

After the formal impeachment process gets underway, President Clinton's ability to lead America in national security and foreign policy will become even weaker. In 1868, the last time we had a presidential impeachment before the full House and Senate, the United States was not a world superpower, nor were the force and tempo of international security threats anything like today's realities of nuclear arms, ballistic missiles and instant communications.

At a moment of urgent need for American leadership, we do not have to wait for the president's resignation or the lengthy unfolding of the impeachment process. The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, proposed and ratified during the Johnson administration soon after the assassination of President John Kennedy, provides for the president to step down temporarily, either voluntarily or by force from the Cabinet. In either scenario, the vice president would take over all the president's powers and duties.

President Ronald Reagan made use of the 25th Amendment when he was hospitalized for colon cancer surgery. He gave Congress a written declaration saying that he was "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office," giving Vice President George Bush constitutional powers as acting president. Later, Reagan reclaimed his powers through a written declaration that he had regained his ability to discharge his duties.

While the impeachment crisis plays out, Clinton could voluntarily step aside while keeping such benefits as his salary and his White House residence. But if he does not move voluntarily to step down temporarily, the Constitution offers another way to provide interim leadership in the White House.

The 25th Amendment authorizes "the vice president and a majority of the either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide" to declare the president incapable of fulfilling his duties and to transfer power to the vice president. In the event of a dispute between the president and his Cabinet over his ability to discharge his duties, Congress is empowered to decide the issue.

If Clinton had been a corporate CEO and had carried on a sexual affair in the workplace with a 21-year-old intern, perjured himself in a sexual harassment case and lied to his board of directors, his employees, legal investigators and the public, I doubt that he would keep his job. The most lenient imaginable treatment might be for the board of directors to suspend him from his duties while carrying out a deliberative process on his fate.

The U.S. Constitution provides similar powers to the Cabinet to "suspend the CEO" when the president is impaired from discharging his duties. Temporarily suspending from power a president in Clinton's situation allows him to be indicted and tried quickly in the criminal courts without disrupting the orderly administration of presidential duties.

It would take no shortage of political courage and imagination for Al Gore and a majority of the Clinton Cabinet to force Clinton to step aside temporarily, but it would be the right thing to do.

You needn't have a high estimation of Gore's ideology, policies or even his ethics to recognize that in our immediate crisis, America would be much better off with him in charge at the White House on an acting basis than the disgraced and totally untrustworthy Clinton. Gore and the Cabinet should suspend Clinton from his powers as a matter of patriotic duty.

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