VICE PRESIDENTIAL VACANCIES: CONGRESSIONAL PROCEDURES IN THE FORD AND ROCKEFELLER NOMINATIONS
CRS Report for Congress
Vice Presidential Vacancies:
Congressional Procedures in the
Ford and Rockefeller Nominations
August 21, 1998
Thomas H. Neale
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
Vice Presidential Vacancies:
Congressional Procedures in the
Ford and Rockefeller Nominations
Although the Constitution provides that the Vice President succeeds the
President in cases of removal, death, resignation, or disability, it makes no provision
for filling vacancies in the vice presidency. On sixteen occasions between 1789 and
1967, the vice presidency was vacant. In eight instances, the Vice President replaced
a President who had died; in seven, the Vice President died in office; and in one case,
the incumbent resigned. During these sometimes lengthy periods, the office remained
vacant, and some other officer served as first in line to the President. Between 1792
and 1886, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House
were next in line to succeed the President after the Vice President; between 1886 and
1947, the persons to succeed were the Secretary of State and other cabinet officers
in the order in which their departments were created. The Presidential Succession Act
of 1947 placed the Speaker and President Pro Tempore in first and second place,
followed by the Cabinet, as before.
In the post-World War II era, these arrangements were increasingly regarded as
inadequate, particularly in light of America’s great-power status and the growth of
world tensions as the Cold War evolved. Most observers believed the nation needed
a Vice President fully prepared to assume the demands of the presidency at all times.
The assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963 provided a dramatic catalyst for
change, helping stimulate congressional approval of an amendment that, among other
provisions, empowers the President to nominate a Vice President whenever the office
is vacant, subject to approval by a majority of both houses of Congress. The 25th
Amendment became operational in 1967.
Within a decade, Congress considered two nominees for the vice presidency.
Both occurred at least indirectly because of the Watergate affair. In 1973, Vice
President Spiro Agnew resigned as part of a plea bargain to avoid prosecution on
political corruption charges, and President Richard Nixon nominated House
Republican Leader Gerald Ford to succeed him. Congressional precedents established
included the essentially bi-partisan nature of the confirmation process, full utilization
of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in investigating the nominee’s public life and
record, and committee assignment to the Committee on Rules and Administration in
the Senate and the Committee on the Judiciary in the House. Ford was confirmed by
overwhelming margins in both houses. Less than a year later, Nixon himself resigned
when it became obvious he would be impeached for his actions in the Watergate
affair. Ford succeeded to the presidency without incident and nominated Nelson
Rockefeller for Vice President. Although the Rockefeller nomination was more
controversial, due to the former Governor’s extremely complex finances and certain
questionable political practices, he was also confirmed in both houses by comfortable
Introduction ................................................... 1
Context: Presidential and Vice Presidential Succession
from 1789 to 1967...........................................2
Succession Acts of 1792, 1881, and 1947.........................3
The 20th Amendment.........................................4th
Vice Presidential Succession and Vacancies Prior to the 25 Amendment..4
The 25th Amendment:
Conception, Passage, and Ratification............................5
Context ................................................... 5
The Kennedy Assassination: Catalyst for Change...................6th
Action in the 89 Congress....................................8
Ratification ................................................ 9
Congress Implements Section 2 of the 25th Amendment:
Vice Presidential Succession in 1973 and 1974.....................10
Watergate ................................................ 10
Vice President Agnew Resigns.................................11
The Ford Nomination........................................12
Confirmation .............................................. 13
Political and International Context..........................13
Background Review of the Nominee........................15
Hearings .............................................. 16
The Rockefeller Nomination..................................22
Context .............................................. 22
Nomination and Confirmation.............................23
Conclusion ................................................... 27
Vice Presidential Vacancies:
Congressional Procedures in the
Ford and Rockefeller Nominations
Throughout most of the nation’s history, there were no constitutional provisions
to fill vacancies in the office of Vice President of the United States. If a Vice
President died, resigned, or succeeded to the presidency, the office remained vacant
until the next election. The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967,
sought to remedy this situation, as well as provide for instances in which the President
was disabled. Conceived in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963
assassination, the amendment addressed several constitutional contingencies related
to presidential succession and disability not anticipated by the founders. Perhaps chief
among these was Section 2, which empowers the President to appoint a Vice
President whenever the office becomes vacant, subject to confirmation by a majority
vote by both houses of Congress.
Less than a decade later, the 93rd Congress was called on to discharge its
constitutional duty under the amendment when the office of Vice President became
vacant twice in the course of 10 months. The first vacancy resulted from the
resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in 1973, and was followed by the
nomination and confirmation of Representative Gerald R. Ford as Vice President.
Less than a year later, Ford himself succeeded to the presidency following President
Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, after which his own vice-presidential nominee,
former New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, was confirmed by Congress and
sworn in, late in 1974.
Confronted with an entirely novel constitutional and political situation, Congress
established ground-breaking procedures in its consideration of these two nominations,
processes that could serve as precedent for future implementation of section two of
the 25th Amendment in the event the vice presidency becomes vacant for any reason.
This report examines constitutional and legislative provisions concerning vacancies
in the vice presidency in historical context. It also reviews congressional precedents
and actions on the two occasions Congress has considered and confirmed nominees
for Vice President.
Context: Presidential and Vice Presidential
from 1789 to 1967
For the first 178 years of government under the Constitution, presidential and
vice presidential succession was provided for in the nation’s fundamental charter,
subsequent constitutional amendments, and statute.
The constitution, in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, requires that:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death,
Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of Constitutional
Provisions the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the
Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or
Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall
then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability
be removed, or a President shall be elected.
As with many sections of the Constitution, this clause left certain points unstated.
Although it provided for cases in which either the presidency or both the presidency
and vice presidency were vacant, it did not address situations in which only the vice
presidency was vacant, nor did it provide a mechanism for filling vice presidential
vacancies.1 While Article I, Section 3 authorized the Senate to elect a President Pro
Tempore “in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office
of President of the United States,” presidential succession scholar John Feerick has
noted that the President Pro Tempore was only to preside over the Senate, was not
a replacement for the Vice President, and had no place in the order of presidential2
succession. The founders thus made no constitutional provision for filling vacancies
in the vice presidency. Consequently, whenever the Vice President acceded to the
1 According to many scholars, this may be due to the fact that the founders envisioned the Vice
President as only a potential acting President, who acceded to the powers of the Presidency
temporarily when that office was vacant, and would serve only until a special election was
arranged by Congress. For a discussion of this point of view, see: Ruth C. Silva, Presidential
Succession (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968, c. 1951), pp. 4-51. By this reasoning, there
was no need to replace a Vice President under these circumstances, since he would return to
his original duties once the presidential vacancy was filled. The first test of this theory came
in 1841, when William Henry Harrison died and was succeeded by his Vice President, John
Tyler. Tyler took the presidential oath, and considered himself to have acceded not only to
the powers and duties, but also the position of President of the United States. After
considerable debate, both houses of Congress implicitly recognized Tyler’s decision by
referring to him as “the President (emphasis added) of the United States” (Congressional
Globe, vol. X, May 31, June 1, 1841, pp. 3-5). This question was definitively addressed inth
the 25 Amendment, which is discussed later in this report.
2 John D. Feerick, From Failing Hands: The Story of Presidential Succession (New York:
Fordham U. Press, 1965), pp. 49-53.
presidency during this long period in American history, the vice presidency remained
vacant until the subsequent presidential election.
Succession Acts of 1792, 1881, and 1947
The Second Congress exercised its authority to provide for Presidential inability
or vacancy in the Succession Act of 1792 (1 Stat. 240). Congress examined several
options, but settled on placing the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the
Speaker of the House first and second, respectively, in the line of succession following
the Vice President. They were to serve only temporarily, however, since the act also
provided for a special election for President to fill the vacancy, provided it fell before
the first Wednesday in September in the last full year of a President’s term of office.3
President James A. Garfield’s death by assassination led directly to a revised
succession act. Shot on July 2, 1881, Garfield lingered for 79 days before
succumbing to his wounds on September 19. Although Vice President Chester A.
Arthur took office without incident, the fact that the offices of both Speaker of the
House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate were vacant at the time revealed4
flaws in the 1792 act. In response to concern about the potential for a leadership
vacuum, Congress passed the Succession Act of 1886 (24 Stat.1) in order to insure
the line of succession. This legislation transferred succession after the Vice President
to the Cabinet officers in the chronological order in which their departments had been
created, provided they had been duly confirmed by the Senate, and were not under
impeachment by the House. By vesting succession after the Vice President in Cabinet
members, the act eliminated the special election provision and made it more likely that
potential presidential successors would be of the same political party as the former
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 380) established the order of
succession after the vice presidency as it still applies. Having just succeeded to office
on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry Truman in 1945 proposed that
Congress revise the order of succession, placing the Speaker of the House and the
President Pro Tempore of the Senate in line behind the Vice President. Truman
argued that it was more appropriate and democratic to have popularly elected officials
first in line to succeed, rather than appointed Cabinet officers. Although his proposal
also provided for special elections to fill any simultaneous vacancy in the presidency
and vice presidency, Congress passed only its succession aspects. Under the act, the
Speaker succeeded in the event of vacancies in both the presidency and vice
presidency, after resigning the speakership and his House seat. If there were no
3 This timing is explained by the fact that presidential terms ended on March 4 when the
Succession Act was passed in 1792. Moreover, the act provided only for election of the
President, since electors cast two non-distinguished votes for President during this periodth
(prior to ratification of the 12 Amendment, which specified separate electoral votes for
President and Vice President), while the electoral vote runner-up was elected Vice President.
4 Vacancy in the speakership was due to the fact that the 46th Congress had expired on March
4, but the House did not convene in the 47th Congress until December 1, 1881, as was
customary at the time. Vacancy in the office of the President Pro Tempore was the result of
bitter partisan strife in a Senate closely divided between the parties.
Speaker, or if the Speaker did not qualify, the President Pro Tempore succeeded,
provided that he, too, resigned his offices. If there were neither a Speaker nor a
President Pro Tempore, or if they did not qualify constitutionally, then the Cabinet5
officers would succeed, under the same conditions as applied in the 1886 act. The
Presidential Succession Act of 1947 remains in force today, although the 25th
Amendment renders recourse to the Speaker, the President Pro Tempore, or the
Cabinet unlikely, except in the event of a catastrophe.
The 20th Amendment
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, is primarily
remembered for changing the dates on which a new Congress begins and the President
and Vice President are inaugurated. However, one of its provisions, Section 3,
clarified a question of presidential succession by declaring that if the President-elect6
dies before being inaugurated, the Vice President-elect “shall become the President.”
Vice Presidential Succession and Vacancies
Prior to the 25th Amendment
Between 1789 and 1967, the office of Vice President was vacant on no fewer
than 16 occasions, nearly once every decade. Instances in which a Vice President
succeeded to the chief executive office on the death of the incumbent President are7
indisputably the best known of these. There have also been eight instances in which
the office of Vice President was vacated for reasons other than presidential
succession. In seven of these cases, the incumbent Vice President died of natural
causes, while in the eighth, he resigned in a dispute with the President.8 In all 16
5 Although superseded by the Speaker and President Pro Tempore by the Presidential
Succession Act, the Cabinet officers retain their places in presidential succession in the
following order: the secretaries of State, the Treasury, and Defense; the Attorney General; the
secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services,
Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, and Veterans Affairs.
6 The question of just when a person is considered President-elect, whether after the electors
cast their votes in December, following the popular vote, or only after Congress has counted
and certified the results the following January 6, was not specifically addressed by the
Amendment. The balance of scholarly opinion, and the legislative record, however, indicate
that there is a President-elect once the electoral votes have been cast.
7 These successions were, in chronological order, 1841: John Tyler, on the death of William
Henry Harrison; 1850: Millard Fillmore, on the death of Zachary Taylor; 1865: Andrew
Johnson, on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; 1881: Chester A. Arthur, on the
assassination of James A. Garfield; 1901: Theodore Roosevelt, on the assassination of
William McKinley; 1923: Calvin Coolidge, on the death of Warren G. Harding; 1945: Harry
S. Truman, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and 1963: Lyndon B. Johnson, on the
assassination of John F. Kennedy.
8 These vacancies, due to death by natural causes, were, in chronological order: 1812, George
Clinton; 1814, Elbridge Gerry; 1853, William R. King; 1875, Henry Wilson; 1885, Thomas
A. Hendricks; 1899, Garret A. Hobart; and 1912, James S. Sherman. The single viceth
presidential resignation prior to ratification of the 25 Amendment was by John C. Calhoun,
cases, the vice presidency remained vacant until the next regularly scheduled
presidential election, sometimes for lengthy periods. For example, John Tyler
succeeded to most of the four-year term to which his predecessor, William Henry
Harrison, had been elected (April 4,1841-March 4, 1845), leaving the vice presidency
vacant for 47 months. More recently, following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, Harry
Truman served the balance (April 12, 1945-Jan. 20, 1949) of what would have been
Roosevelt's fourth term, resulting in a 45 month vice presidential vacancy.
The 25th Amendment:
Conception, Passage, and Ratification
Although proposals for revising presidential succession and disability procedures
were regularly advanced during the post-World War II era, it is unlikely that any one
of them would have come to fruition had it not been for the extraordinary events
surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
For most of the nation's history under the Constitution, Vice Presidents were
traditionally regarded as politically inconsequential, chosen more to provide balance
to the party ticket in a presidential election than for their abilities as potential
successors to the presidency. American complacency over a presidential disability or
vacancy was demonstrated by the long disability of President Woodrow Wilson. On
October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered during
the 17 remaining months of his term. The gravity of his illness was concealed from
the press and public, and access to the President was strictly controlled by his wife,
his physician, and his secretary. Vice President Thomas Marshall remained
completely unprepared for potential succession to the presidency throughout the
Traditional attitudes toward the Vice President began to change out of necessity
by the time Harry Truman took the oath in 1945. Prior to the Truman succession of
1945, the slower pace of transportation and communications, coupled with the
relative security conferred on the United States by its insulating oceans, seemed to
obviate the need for a “standby” successor ready to take office at a moment’s notice.
Technological advances and the development of weapons of mass destruction made
the world a much smaller and more dangerous place. Nor was the United States able
to afford the luxury and safety of isolation; as the leading democratic power, it was,
by default, the only nation capable of leading and defending the West as the Cold War
developed in the late 1940s. In the opinion of most observers, the nation needed a
Vice President fully prepared to meet the demands of the presidency whenever called
to do so. This necessity was recognized by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, both
9 Arthur S. Link, “Woodrow Wilson,” in The Presidents: A Reference History (New York:
Scribner’s, 1996), pp. 384-385; Feerick, From Failing Hands, pp. 162-180.
of whom gave their Vice Presidents a far greater role in their Administrations than had
previously been customary. Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson regularly
attended cabinet meetings, were assigned various independent and official duties, and
participated in the policy process at the highest levels.
Between World War II and President Kennedy’s death in 1963, however,
attention had been focused more on presidential disability than on succession, an
interest stimulated by three instances in which President Dwight D. Eisenhower was
incapacitated by illness or surgery for varying periods of time. In one case, the
President was hospitalized between September 24 and November 11, 1955, following
a heart attack. In 1956, he underwent surgery to remove a benign intestinal
obstruction; and finally, on November 25, 1957, he suffered a mild stroke, but
returned to work in less than a week.10 While many observers expressed concern over
these events, informal procedures worked out between President Eisenhower and
Vice President Nixon appeared to cover most contingencies, and no legislative action
occurred. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson also made similar
contingency plans, providing for temporary transfer of power and responsibilities in
the event of disability on the part of the chief executive.
The Kennedy Assassination: Catalyst for Change
It took the shocking death of President Kennedy, however, to create an
awareness of, and consensus for, the need for swift congressional action to remedy
the now-apparent deficiencies in succession and disability arrangements. The leisurely
discussion of changes in these provisions was dramatically interrupted by his
assassination on November 22, 1963.
Not only was the President’s death an intensely traumatic event for the American
people, it also aroused deep concern over succession arrangements provided (or not
provided, in the case of Vice Presidents) in the Constitution and law. Few doubted
that Vice President Johnson was well qualified to assume the presidency; he had
served in Congress for 24 years, latterly as an effective Senate Majority Leader, and
exemplified the newly revitalized vice presidency. On the other hand, it was recalled
that in 1955 he had suffered a severe heart attack, requiring six weeks of11
hospitalization and three months of restricted activity. Of similar concern were the
facts that House Speaker John W. McCormack, next in line of succession after
President Johnson, was 71 years old, and Senate President Pro Tempore Carl T.
Hayden, who followed the Speaker, was 86 years old and visibly frail.12
The primary anxiety about the vice presidential vacancy following President
Kennedy’s death, however, was due as much to concern over the uncertain
international political climate as it was to the health of his potential successors.
10 John D. Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Its Complete History and Applications
(New York: Fordham U. Press, 1992, c. 1976), pp. 17-23.
11 Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper, 1976), pp.
12 Feerick, From Failing Hands, p. 264.
Senator Birch Bayh, chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments
of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sought to frame the debate in remarks delivered
on the Senate floor less than three weeks after the assassination:
Now is the time to act—while the question of Presidential succession is uppermost
in our minds, and we have just completed a smooth and calm transition. If we do
not act in this time of sober and reasoned reflection, when shall we act? When will
we be as close to the issue as we are today? Hopefully, never. But because
history is unpredictable, we must provide for the unsought moments of national
crisis.... The accelerated pace of international affairs, plus the overwhelming
problems of modern military security, make it almost imperative that we change
our system to provide for not only a President but a Vice President at all times.
The modern concept of the Vice Presidency is that of a man standing in the
“wings”—even if reluctantly—ready at all times to take the burden. He must
know the job of the President. He must keep current on all national and
international developments. He must, in fact, be something of an “assistant13
President,” such as Vice President Johnson was....
With these words, Senator Bayh introduced S.J.Res. 139 in the 88th Congress
on December 12, 1963. Section 1 of the resolution, offered as an amendment to the
Constitution, provided that the Vice President would “become” President upon
acceding to the office, thus eliminating lingering constitutional questions as to his
status. Section 2 authorized the President to nominate a Vice President any time the
office was vacant, subject to confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of
Congress. Sections 3 and 4 provided for cases of Presidential disability in which the
Vice President would serve as Acting President, provided procedures by which the
President could resume his duties, and provided a mechanism for resolving disputes
Five alternative proposals were offered during the same session: reconvening
the electoral college to fill vice presidential vacancies; election of a replacement Vice
President by a joint session of Congress; creation of a dual vice presidency to
guarantee succession; congressional election of a replacement from the President’s
Cabinet, or election by Congress from a list of five nominees proposed by the
Extensive hearings were held on the various proposals between January and
March 1964. Senator Bayh’s S.J.Res. 139 was reported favorably by the
Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments on May 27 and by the full Committee
on the Judiciary on August 13. The Senate passed the amendment by an
overwhelming margin (65-0) on September 29, 1964.15
13 Sen. Birch Bayh, “Presidential Succession,” remarks in the Senate, Congressional Record,
vol. 109, Dec. 12, 1963, pp. 24420-24421.
14 “Presidential Inability and Vice Presidential Vacancies,” Congressional Quarterly
Almanac, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, 1964 , vol. no. 20 (Washington: Congressional
Quarterly Service, 1964), pp. 405-411.
15 Ibid., p. 410.
The House declined to act on any succession amendment for the balance of the
88th Congress, however, possibly out of respect for Speaker McCormack. According
to some sources, there was concern among the House leadership that such action
could have been construed as an insult to, or a vote of no confidence in, the
Action in the 89th Congress
The election in 1964 and the subsequent inauguration of President Johnson and
Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey restored the normal line of succession, and
cleared the way for action in both houses on the proposed amendment. Introduced as
S.J.Res. 1 by Chairman Bayh, and as H.J.Res. 1 by House Judiciary Committee
Chairman Emanuel Celler when the 89th Congress convened in 1965, both resolutions
were identical to S.J.Res. 139, as passed in the Senate the previous autumn. President
Johnson issued a strong endorsement in his January 28 Special Message on
Presidential Disability and Related Matters:
Indelible personal experience has impressed upon me the indisputable logic
and imperative necessity of assuring that the Second Office of our system shall,
like the First Office, be at all times occupied by an incumbent who is able and who
is ready to assume the powers and duties of the Chief Executive and Commander-
in-Chief.... Once only an appendage, the Office of the Vice President is an integral
part of the chain of command and its occupancy on a full-time basis is17
The measure, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, received swift attention
and action in both houses. S.J.Res. 1, introduced on January 6, 1965, was reported
by the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments on February 1 and by the full
Judiciary Committee on February 10. Two technical amendments were adopted on
the Senate floor when the resolution was debated on February 19, while several
others, including two substitutes, were overwhelmingly rejected. The primary
objection, voiced by Senator Everett M. Dirksen, centered around concern that the
resolution’s detailed procedures for resolving presidential disability disputes were
both untested and unnecessarily cumbersome, and would be better incorporated in
statutory law authorized by the amendment, rather than in the body of the amendment18
itself. The full Senate, however, adopted the resolution by a vote of 72 to 0 the
16 Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, p. 83; Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1964,
17 U.S. President (L.B. Johnson), “Special Message to the Congress on Presidential Disability
and Related Matters,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B.
Johnson, 1965 (Washington: GPO, 1966), vol. 1, p. 102.
18 “Constitutional Amendment on Presidency,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 89th
Congress, 1st Session, 1965, vol. 21 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1966),
The House began consideration of H.J.Res. 1 with four days of hearings before
the full Committee on the Judiciary between February 9 and 16, 1965. Once again,
debate centered on mechanisms in Sections 3 and 4 by which a President could be
declared to be disabled, and on subsequent disputes that might arise as to whether the
disability was over. The Judiciary Committee reported its own version of the
amendment, incorporating changes indicated by these concerns, on March 24. On
April 13, the House passed its amended version of the resolution by a vote of 368 to
29, and voted to substitute it for the Senate version. Conferees required another two
months to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, with the House
approving the conference report by voice vote on June 30, and the Senate on July 6
by a vote of 68 to 5.20
Section 2 of the proposed amendment reads as follows:
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President,
the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office21
upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
The proposed amendment was transmitted to the General Services
Administration for circulation to the states on July 7, 1965. Although there was
widespread acceptance of the need for such an amendment, the state legislatures were
not able to move rapidly, since many had adjourned for the year by the time the
proposal was transmitted to them.22 Nebraska, the first state to act, ratified on July
12, just five days after transmission; the constitutional requirement of ratification by
three-fourths of the states was attained on February 10, 1967, when Nevada became
the 38th state to approve. This 584-day period was slightly less than the mean
ratification period of 617 days for all amendments, but longer than the 546-day mean
for amendments ratified in the 20th century.23
As President Johnson noted at White House ceremonies marking ratification of
the 25th Amendment:
Twice in our history we have had serious and prolonged
disabilities in the Presidency.... Sixteen times in the history of the
Republic the Office of Vice President—the Office created to provide
continuity in the Executive—itself has been vacant. Once, perhaps, we
could pay the price of inaction. But today in this crisis-ridden era there
is no margin for delay, no possible justification for ever permitting a
20 Ibid., pp. 580-581.
21 U.S. Constitution, Amendment 25, Section 2.
22 Most state legislatures are limited in their session times to periods generally falling between
January and April each year, while others meet only every other year. Consequently, they
were unable to consider ratification prior to early 1966 or 1967.
23 U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Ratification of Amendments
to the U.S. Constitution, by David C. Huckabee, CRS Report 95-316 GOV (Washington:
March 1, 1995), p. 5.
vacuum in our national leadership. Now, at last, through the 25th
amendment, we have the means of responding to these crises of24
Congress Implements Section 2 of the 25th
Vice Presidential Succession in 1973 and 1974
Congress first implemented Section 2 of the 25th Amendment in 1973, under
circumstances no less dramatic than those that led to the proposal and ratification of
the amendment itself. Morever, less than a year later Congress considered a second
nomination to fill another vice presidential vacancy. Section 2 had generated almost
no controversy during the amendment’s approval process in Congress: the general
thrust of debate indicated that Members assumed it would most likely be invoked
following the death of a President or Vice President. Instead, both implementations
occurred in the midst of, and were major episodes in, the Watergate affair, one of the
greatest constitutional crises in American history.
The Watergate affair began on June 17, 1972, when agents of President Richard
M. Nixon’s reelection committee were apprehended while placing phone taps in the
offices of the Democratic National Committee, housed in the Watergate complex in
Washington. Although some reporters and politicians claimed that the President or
his campaign staff had been involved, the charges had no effect on Nixon’s successful
reelection effort that autumn. The Watergate intruders, who were convicted in early
1973, eventually bowed to pressure from presiding Judge John J. Sirica, admitting
that the reelection committee and White House staff had been involved in the political
espionage plan. Meanwhile, The Washington Post had published stories asserting that
both reelection committee staff and White House officials had known of the burglary
in advance, and, moreover, had subsequently orchestrated efforts to conceal their
On February 7, 1973, the Senate voted to establish a Select Committee on
Presidential Campaign Activities, under Senators Sam J. Ervin, Jr. and Howard Baker,
to investigate the growing allegations of a coverup by the White House staff. The
committee opened its televised hearings on May 17, and subsequently called most of
the President’s closest advisors to testify. At the same time, on May 18, Attorney
General Elliot L. Richardson appointed a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to
investigate the affair for the Justice Department.
24 U.S. President (L.B. Johnson), “Remarks at Ceremony Marking the Ratification of the
Presidential Inability (25th) Amendment to the Constitution,” Public Papers of the Presidents
of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967 (Washington: GPO, 1967), vol. 1, pp. 217-
Throughout the late spring and summer of 1973, the nation was stunned by
succeeding revelations before Senator Ervin’s “Watergate” committee. Perhaps most
damaging to President Nixon were allegations made by his dismissed counsel, John
Dean, who asserted that the President had participated in the coverup from the very
beginning. The subsequent revelation by former presidential assistant Alexander
Butterfield that most of the President’s conversations had been recorded focused
investigators’ demands on tapes that, if revealed, would either incriminate or
exonerate the President. Invoking executive privilege, President Nixon refused a
request from Cox to deliver certain tapes in early October, leaving the nation on the
brink of an historic constitutional crisis.
Vice President Agnew Resigns25
As the extraordinary events of Watergate unfolded in 1973, an unrelated federal
investigation of political corruption in Baltimore County, Maryland, was being
conducted by the United States Attorney for Maryland. In June, the investigation
uncovered evidence that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had engaged in a pattern of
corrupt activities while serving as Baltimore County executive and Governor of
Maryland in the 1960s. On August 1, the Vice President was informed he was being
investigated. Five days later, Attorney General Richardson alerted the President to
the investigation. By September, a grand jury was reviewing evidence against Agnew,
who maintained his innocence, while criticizing the investigation on the grounds that
the investigation staff had intentionally disclosed information damaging to his case.
He also asserted that an incumbent Vice President could not be indicted. As Agnew’s
various defense arguments failed or were rejected, he entered into negotiations with
both the Justice Department and President Nixon’s counsel, in which he ultimately
agreed to resign and plead “no contest” to a single count of tax evasion, in return for
a $10,000 fine and three years of unsupervised probation. Agnew resigned the vice
presidency on October 10, 1973.
Throughout the period of Agnew’s legal troubles, there was increasing anxiety
over the possibility that conduct of the United States government could crippled
because both the President and Vice President might be the objects of impeachment
or legal proceedings for an extended period. Anxieties increased after war broke out
between Israel and Egypt and Syria on October 6. Although the Nixon
Administration responded decisively and vigorously, many high-level officials were
fully aware of the potential consequences of conducting the nation’s affairs in the
midst of a constitutional crisis. As Feerick wrote of Attorney General Richardson’s
On July 3 this information (evidence of Agnew’s corrupt
practices) was brought to the attention of Attorney General Elliott
Richardson. Richardson is said to have remarked that “the continuing
25 This account relies substantially on: Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover, A Heartbeat
Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (New York:
Viking Press, 1974) and “Agnew: Second Vice President to Resign,” in Congressionalrdst
Quarterly Almanac, 93 Congress, 1 session, 1973, vol. 29 (Washington: Congressional
Quarterly, 1974), pp. 1054-1058.
capacity of the nation to govern itself” was at stake, and referred to the
fact that Agnew was a heartbeat away from the presidency. “The
President’s plane could go down tomorrow,” he said. “There could be
an assassin’s bullet. He could die tomorrow....” Richardson seems to
have realized that the nation could not bear possible simultaneous
criminal prosecutions of both the President and the Vice President, and
therefore, he sought Agnew’s resignation in the national interest,
knowing that a procedure existed for selecting a new and untarnished26
Agnew’s October 10 resignation eased the immediacy of these concerns,
demonstrated the value of Section 2 of the 25th Amendment for many observers, and
cleared the way for its first implementation.
The Ford Nomination
President Nixon moved quickly to nominate a replacement for Agnew under theth
provisions of the 25 Amendment. According to his own account, the President
favored former Texas Governor John B. Connally, while he also considered New
York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, California Governor Ronald W. Reagan, and
House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford as potential nominees. He hoped to choose27
a forceful candidate who would be a vigorous President if called on to fill the office.
On the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and other senior
Democrats urged him to make a less political choice, some less partisan figure, who
could serve as a “caretaker” until the 1976 elections. According to Nixon and other
sources, they cautioned him that Democrats would be less inclined to approve the
nomination of a figure perceived to be a strong candidate for the presidency in that28
year. This attitude was not shared by all Democrats, however. Senator Bayh, father
of the 25th Amendment, declared that it did not contemplate a caretaker President, and29
that the approval process “has to be out of the partisan arena.”
Nixon’s final decision was, again by his own description, a compromise between
these competing views. Discarding Connally because of Democratic opposition, and
Reagan and Rockefeller because of their additional potential to split the Republican
Party along ideological lines, he settled on Representative Ford, who he believed was
acceptable to both houses of Congress, and would also serve as an active chief
executive, if necessary, rather than as a caretaker.30 Ford’s nomination was
announced at a White House ceremony held on October 12, 1973, just two days after
Agnew’s departure. President Nixon officially transmitted the nomination to
Congress the following day. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan was a 24-year veteran of the
26 Feerick, The Twenty-fifth Amendment, pp. 119, 126.
27 Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset and Dunlap,
28 Ibid.; also, Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, pp. 130-132.
29 Mary Russell, “Caretaker Not Aim of 25th Amendment, Framer Says,” Washington Post,
Oct. 12, 1973, p. A 10.
30 Nixon, RN, pp. 926-927.
House of Representatives, having served continuously since 1948. In 1965, he had
succeeded Representative Charles Halleck as House Republican Leader, a post he
held until his resignation to assume the vice presidency.
Representative Ford’s nomination presented Congress with several important
decisions concerning the confirmation process. Leaders and Members of both the
House and Senate realized that they were breaking new ground and that their actions
would be precedent-setting. Major decisions included committee referral,
investigation of the nominee, hearings, and floor action.
Political and International Context.
Congress’s consideration of the Ford nomination did not occur in peaceful
surroundings. The period from Agnew's resignation to Gerald Ford’s installation as
Vice President was dominated not only by the confirmation process, but also by two
highly charged and dramatic developments in domestic and international affairs:
continuing conflict over the Watergate affair, and war in the Middle East.
At home, Watergate continued to unfold as Special Prosecutor Cox’s request for
relevant taped presidential conversations was sustained by the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit on October 12. After Cox rejected both a
compromise offered by President Nixon and a presidential directive that he (Cox)
make no further attempts to obtain tapes or other documents, the President ordered
Attorney General Richardson to dismiss the prosecutor. Richardson refused, claiming
this would jeopardize the prosecutor’s independence, and subsequently resigned.
Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus also refused the directive, and was
dismissed before he could offer his resignation. Solicitor General Robert Bork was
elevated to Acting Attorney General, and carried out the order to dismiss Cox.
Unfavorable public reaction, often characterized as a “firestorm,” led the President to
reverse himself on October 23, when he announced he would deliver the tapes cited,
and appoint a new special prosecutor to continue the investigation. Meanwhile,
however, no fewer than 16 resolutions of impeachment were introduced in the House
An explosion of violence in the Middle East also contributed to the tense
atmosphere that surrounded Congress’s consideration of the Ford nomination. On
October 6, 1973, Syrian and Egyptian armed forces launched successful surprise
attacks on Israeli forces holding occupied territory in the Golan Heights (Syria) and
the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt). President Nixon ordered a massive airlift to resupply the
struggling Israelis, and ordered a world-wide alert of U.S. armed forces when the
possibility of Soviet intervention arose. In a collateral development, on October 20-
21, Arab oil-exporters retaliated against U.S. support for Israel by ordering an
embargo of petroleum shipments to the United States. This action eventually led to
widespread shortages of gasoline and heating oil in the U.S. Finally, after nearly three
31 Theodore H. White, Breach of Faith, the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Atheneum,
weeks of dangerously heightened international tensions, the Israelis turned back the
attacks, and a temporary cease-fire was negotiated on October 24, followed by a more
permanent arrangement on November 11.
Discussions over which committee(s) would be assigned the prospective
nomination of a new Vice President began even before Agnew announced his
resignation. One early proposal called for a special joint committee of Members from
both houses, an idea apparently favored by Senate Majority Leader Mansfield and
House Speaker Carl Albert.32 Both leaders believed a joint committee and joint
hearings would “avoid duplication and accommodate expedition.”33 According to
contemporary press accounts, however, the Speaker soon abandoned this idea,
bowing to opinion voiced by many Representatives, who expressed concern that
House Members might be overshadowed in the hearings by the nationally-known
Senators who would almost certainly make up the Senate delegation to a joint
Having decided against the joint committee/hearings option, House leadership
moved quickly to assign its part in the confirmation process to the full Judiciary
Committee, chaired by Representative Peter W. Rodino, Jr.35 The Senate, on the
other hand, continued to discuss a variety of suggestions to consider the nomination.
These were summarized on the floor by Majority Leader Mansfield, and included the
!referral to the Committee of the Whole;
!creation of a special committee, free-standing, or as a subcommittee of the
Committee of the Whole;
!creation of a committee composed of members of the Committee on the
Judiciary and the Committee on Rules and Administration, selected by the bi-
partisan leadership; and
!routine referral to the Committee on Rules and Administration, either as
regularly constituted, or expanded by additional members chosen by the
An examination of Senate Rules indicated that, under normal circumstances, all
“proposed legislation, messages, petitions, memorials, and other matters relating ...
to the election of the President, Vice President ... Federal elections generally; [and]
Presidential succession” would be referred to the Committee on Rules and
32 Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, p. 133.
33 Sen. Mike Mansfield, “The Vice Presidency,” remarks in the Senate, Congressional
Record, vol. 119, Oct. 12, 1973, p. 33994.
34 Richard L. Lyons and Spencer Rich, “Hill Vows Thorough Probe of Successor,”
Washington Post, Oct. 12, 1973, pp. A1, A15.
35 “Nixon, Congress Seek Accord on Agnew Replacement,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly
Report, vol. 31, Oct. 13, 1973, p. 2695.
36 Mansfield, “The Vice Presidency,” p. 33994.
Administration [Rule XXV, section (p)]. Further, Rule XXXVIII stated that, “When
nominations shall be made by the President of the United States to the Senate, they
shall, unless otherwise ordered, be referred to appropriate committees....”37
Meeting October 12, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee considered
various referral options, as well as the apparent requirements of Senate Rules, and
concluded that the Rules Committee would be the appropriate vehicle for
confirmation proceedings. Some Members argued for an ad hoc expansion of the
Rules Committee, claiming that the gravity of the situation required a temporary
enlargement of the nine-Member committee. The conference subsequently voted to
support referral to the Rules Committee and its temporary expansion by six Members:
three selected by the Majority Leader and three by the Minority Leader, with the
Majority Leader being one of the additional Members.38 Majority Leader Mansfield
and other senior Senators, however, indicated their preference for referral to the Rules
Committee without expansion, a position which had also been adopted unanimously
by the Republican Conference.
Other Senators insisted that the nomination demanded action beyond the status
quo. Senator Edward Kennedy, for instance, argued that the situation confronting the
Senate was completely without precedent, and that, therefore, “the Standing Rules are
not dispositive of the issue, and the Senate is entitled to write as if on a blank slate.”39
According to one account, the political orientation of the various committees was at
issue: “liberal” Senators were alleged to prefer referral to the Judiciary Committee
because it included “a significant number of senators of a liberal persuasion,” while
“conservatives” were alleged to have supported the more “conservative” Rules
Committee.40 Discussion of these questions continued inconclusively on the Senate
floor for the balance of the day, and a decision was promised for Saturday, October
13. By that time, however, the Ford nomination had been announced, and its obvious
popularity led to withdrawal of alternative proposals in the Senate, assuring
assignment of the nomination to the Rules Committee, under the chairmanship of
Senator Howard W. Cannon, in accord with the Senate’s Standing Rules.41
Background Review of the Nominee.
Although the nomination of Gerald Ford for Vice President was a popular choice
among Members of Congress, the leadership of both houses was quick to pledge an
exhaustive investigation of the nominee’s background and public life. The Federal
37 U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Manual Containing the Standing Rules, Orders, Laws and
Resolutions Affecting the Business of the United States Senate, S. Doc. 92-1, 92nd Cong., 1st
sess., prepared by Gordon F. Harrison and John P. Coder (Washington: GPO, 1971), Rule
XXV, section (p), pp. 38-39, Rule XXXVIII, p. 57.
38 Mansfield, “The Vice Presidency,” p. 33994.
39 Sen. Hugh Scott, “The Vice Presidency,” Congressional Record, vol. 119, Oct. 12, 1973,
40 Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, p. 133.
41 Sen. Mike Mansfield and Sen. Lawton Chiles, “Nomination of Gerald Ford to Be Vice
President of the United States,” Congressional Record, vol. 119, Oct. 13, 1973, p. 34047.
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reportedly dispatched 350 agents from 33 field offices
to compile data on Ford’s life and activities. More than 1,000 interviews were
conducted, and 1,700 pages of “raw data” were provided to the Senate Rules and42
House Judiciary Committees. The American and Michigan Bar Associations were
asked to review all records concerning the nominee’s practice of law since he had
been admitted to the bar. Ford’s tax records for the years 1965 through 1972 were
minutely examined and made available to the committees, while those for an
additional five years from 1960 to 1965 were also reviewed. The candidate also
provided a complete financial statement detailing his assets and liabilities. In addition,
at the request of both committees, a Congressional Research Service task force
conducted a comprehensive review of Ford’s congressional career, including
information on and an analysis of his public statements, floor and committee activities,
voting record, bills introduced and co-sponsored, interest group ratings of the
nominee, etc. The task force also compiled public information on his life outside
Congress, including contemporary press accounts of his various activities during his
career. The committees, therefore, had an exceptionally complete picture of Gerald
Ford, both as a citizen and as a Member of Congress.
In their first major decision concerning confirmation hearings, joint bipartisan
leadership of the House and Senate agreed to schedule consecutive hearings,
beginning with the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, and followed by
the House Judiciary Committee.
The Rules Committee took the first round of hearings, beginning November 1,
!The chairman was authorized to issue subpoenas to summon witnesses to
testify at hearings.
!The hearings would be covered on a pooled basis by the three major
commercial television networks and “gavel-to-gavel” by the Public
!Committee staff would be augmented as necessary by staff from “other
legislative entities;” each Member could also designate an additional staff
person, from either personal staff, or committee staff, as his representative at
!FBI files containing “raw” data collected on the nominee would be available
only to the chairman and ranking minority member. They would review the
files and bring any questionable activities to the attention of other committee
members. (This restriction was insisted on by the Justice Department and the
!Only committee Members and the most senior minority and majority staff
members would have access to other confidential information, such as tax
42 Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, pp. 135,136; “Congress Approved Ford Nomination
for Vice President,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1973 (Washington: Congressional
Quarterly, 1974) p. 1062.
returns. Access to other staff members would be determined by the chairman
and the ranking minority member.
!Representative Ford would be the first witness, to be followed by Senators and43
Representatives, and other interested parties.
Senate hearings opened on November 1, with the nominee as the first witness.
Committee members pursued two lines of inquiry. In the first, the committee sought
to ascertain the nominee’s viewpoint on vital questions of governance, especially
those concerning the Watergate affair. He was questioned on executive privilege,
separation of powers, presidential impoundment of appropriated funds, the
independence of the special prosecutor, general cooperation between the executive
and legislative branches, his views on the presidential pardoning power, and his own
future plans for the presidency. Interrogation of the nominee resumed at the next
hearings session, held on November 5, after which a bipartisan group of
Representatives offered statements on Ford’s qualifications to hold office. At thisth
session, Senator Bayh, widely regarded as “father” of the 25 Amendment, asked that
Congress lay aside political differences and Watergate-related concerns and conduct
the confirmation process in a non-partisan manner.44
On November 7, the committee convened in executive session to examine
questions raised concerning Ford’s personal honesty that had emerged from charges
made by lobbyist Robert Winter-Berger in his 1972 book The Washington Payoff.
Winter-Berger alleged that Ford had:
!engaged in influence peddling, including accepting payments to influence
government contracts and State Department appointments;
!laundered campaign contributions to various Republican groups and
!accepted cash gifts from Winter-Berger to pay medical bills for Mrs. Betty
!been under regular treatment for depression by a New York psychiatrist.45
Under close interrogation, Winter-Berger was unable to provide any evidence to
substantiate his claims, which contained numerous inconsistencies. Moreover, a
number of persons identified by Winter-Berger as being able to corroborate his
charges were summoned before the committee, where they uniformly denied his
43 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Nomination of Gerald R.
Ford of Michigan To Be Vice President of the United States, report, 93rd Cong., 1st sess., S.
Exec. Rept. 93-26 (Washington: GPO, 1973), pp. 1-7. (Hereafter referred to as Senate
Report on Ford Nomination.)
44 U.S. Congress Senate Committee on Government Operations, Nomination of Gerald R.
Ford To Be Vice President of the United States, hearings, 93rd Cong., 1st sess., Nov. 1, 5, 7,
and 14, 1973 (Washington: GPO, 1973), pp. 144-148. (Hereafter referred to as Senate
Hearings on Ford Nomination.)
45 Ibid., pp. 207-208.
allegations under oath. The committee subsequently voted to make public the
testimony given at the executive session.46
The final public session of Senate hearings was held on November 14, at which
time a panel consisting largely of critics of the Ford nomination appeared. Ford was
criticized as being unfit to serve, due to his legislative record, lack of experience in
foreign affairs, and his admittedly conservative political philosophy. One witness
suggested that Congress defer action on the vice presidential nomination until the
question of President Nixon’s future was settled, while another called for a special
election to fill the vice presidency.47 The final witness urged delay on the grounds that
Vice President Agnew had been driven from office by a conspiracy most likely48
orchestrated in the White House.
On November 20, the Rules and Administration Committee voted unanimously
to report the Ford nomination favorably to the full Senate. The committee concluded
that the FBI investigation had not revealed any violations of law or irregularities in
Ford’s personal or political financial affairs. The committee further ruled that other
allegations against him, particularly those brought by Winter-Berger, were found to
have been unsubstantiated.49
The House Judiciary Committee began its hearings on November 15,
immediately following the last public session of Senate hearings. Committee
Chairman Peter Rodino tentatively set November 21 as the deadline for completion
of hearings, but eventually scheduled an additional session for November 26 in order
to accommodate committee members and witnesses. It was noted at the time that the
size of the 38-member committee rendered questioning a cumbersome and time
consuming process, requiring “hours to complete a single round of questions.”50
There was also a dispute over committee access to FBI information on the nominee
(“raw data”); the Department of Justice originally insisted that it should be available
only to the chairman and the ranking minority member of the committee, but this
restriction was unacceptable to the committee. After two weeks of negotiations, the
files’ availability was extended to an additional three committee members from each
political party.51 These designees were to review the files and report any questionable
findings to the full committee. This particular decision was criticized by several
committee members, who asserted that all members should have access to the files.52
46 Senate Report on Ford Nomination, p. 30.
47 Senate Hearings on Ford Nomination, pp. 290-297.
48 Ibid., pp. 352-357.
49 Senate Report on Ford Nomination, p. 97.
50 “Congress Approved Ford Nomination for Vice President,” Congressional Quarterly
Almanac, 1973, p. 1060.
51 U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary, Nomination of Gerald R. Ford
To Be the Vice President of the United States, hearings, 93rd Congress, 1st session, Nov. 15-
52 Feerick, The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, p. 143.
Procedures closely followed those adopted in the Senate, with Representative
Ford being questioned for four hours and 15 minutes the first day of hearings, and six
hours and 38 minutes the following day, November 16.53 Ford returned for further
testimony, totaling an additional eight hours, on November 21 and 26. Once again,
Ford was closely questioned on his public record, particularly his views on civil rights
legislation, human rights in general, and areas of law associated with the ongoing
Watergate crisis. The Winter-Berger allegations were also revisited, with the
committee arriving at conclusions similar to those made by the Senate Rules
Committee. House Judiciary Committee members also critically examined the
nominee’s role in efforts to impeach Associate Supreme Court Justice William O.
Douglas in 1970, as well as his activities as a member of the Warrren Commission that54
investigated the assassination of President Kennedy.
One objection raised by opponents of the Ford nomination concerned the
constitutional prohibition against appointment of a Senator or Representative to any
civil office which for which the “emolument” had been increased during his term of
office in Congress.55 It was asserted that the passage of Public Law 93-136, which
increased retirement benefits for many federal employees, including the Vice
President, was a disqualifying constitutional impediment to the nomination, since Ford
had been a Member of the House of Representatives when President Nixon approved
the legislation on October 24, 1973. Other Members rejected this assertion, relying
on legislative counsel’s opinion that the Vice President was not a “civil officer,” as
defined by the Constitution.56
After completing hearings on November 26, the Judiciary Committee voted to
report the nomination favorably to the House on November 29. In contrast with the
Senate, the decision was not unanimous, with eight members voting against a
favorable report, and one voting “present.” The majority report cited many of the
same reasons mentioned in the Senate report, while opponents suggested that the
nominee’s record on civil and human rights, his lack of executive or foreign policy
experience, and his role in the Douglas impeachment attempt engendered their
opposition. Dissenting members also suggested that the committee should
acknowledge the fact that public opinion concerning the Nixon Administration had
changed dramatically since the President’s reelection in 1972, and that the nominee,
therefore, need not share Nixon's party affiliation or outlook. They urged that
53 U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary, Confirmation of Gerald R. Ford as Vice
President of the United States, report to accompany H.Res. 735, 93rd Cong., 1st sess., H.
Rept. 93-695 (Washington: GPO, 1973), p. 2. (Hereafter referred to as House Report on
54 Ibid., pp. 9-11.
55 Article I, Section 6, Clause 2: “No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for
which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United
States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased
during such time.”
56 House Report on Ford Nomination, pp. 40-41.
Congress take no action on the nomination until the ultimate outcome of Watergate-
related court and impeachment activities was reached.57
Consideration of the Ford nomination swiftly followed the hearings and
investigation process. The Senate’s debate began November 26, the same day the
House Judiciary Committee favorably reported the nomination.58 The Senate debate
consisted largely of statements of praise for, and confidence in, the nominee; his
honesty, decency, sincerity, and candor during the hearings were frequently cited,
along with his record of service in World War II and during a 24-year career in the
House of Representatives. Members also noted his willingness to compromise during
his career in the House of Representatives, without at the same time abandoning his
principles. Many remarked that they fully expected Ford to assume the presidency
within the near future.
Some Democratic Senators noted political and philosophical differences with the
nominee. They stated that Ford would not have been their choice for Vice President,
but conceded that, barring unfitness to serve on the part of the nominee, Congress
should confirm the President’s choice for Vice President when the 25th Amendment
was invoked. One opponent noted the alleged Article I, Section 6 constitutional
impediment cited earlier in this report, but again, this was rebutted with legislative
counsel’s opinion that the Vice President was not a “civil officer,” as intended in the
Constitution.59 The main thrust of opposition centered around the Watergate affair.
It was asserted that the 25th Amendment was inappropriate to the situation, one in
which the Vice President had resigned while under criminal investigation, and the
President himself might well be subject to impeachment and removal from office. As
Senator William Hathaway noted, an appointed Vice President who succeeded to the
presidency under these circumstances:
...would be the one appointed by the very leader deposed by the people. Such a
result seems contrary to the principles of our entire legal and political tradition.
Further, a President thus installed would, for the first time in our history, not be
one elected by the people. This is inconsistent with the underlying principle of
democratic government: that sovereignty and legitimacy derive only from the60
Notwithstanding these arguments, it was apparent throughout the debate that the
Ford nomination enjoyed powerful bipartisan support and was assured of passage.
The final vote to confirm the nomination was an overwhelming 92 to 3. Ford
57 Ibid., pp. 27-70.
58 Senate debate on the nomination may be found at “Executive Session—Nomination of
Gerald R. Ford To Be Vice President of the United States,” Congressional Record, vol. 119,
Nov. 26-27, 1973, pp. 37960-37969, 38212-38225. (Hereafter referred to as Senate Debate
on Ford Nomination.)
59 Ibid., p. 38218.
60 Ibid., p. 37961.
received unanimous support from the 40 Republican Senators present and voting,
while his margin among Democrats was 52 to 3.61
House of Representatives debate on the Ford nomination took place on
December 6. As the House is not normally called on to consider nominations, it used
a resolution (H.Res. 735) as the vehicle for approval of the nomination. The Senate,
by contrast, traditionally votes simply to confirm or reject nominations placed before
it. The rule adopted for its consideration, H.Res. 738, called for the House to
consider the nomination in the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the
Union. It limited debate to a total of six hours, equally divided and controlled by the
chairman and ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee. After debate, the62
committee rose and reported the resolution to the House for final consideration.
Most of the debate followed a course similar to that in the Senate: statements of
sometimes fulgent praise for Ford by his supporters; expressions of admiration for the
man, but not his politics, followed by declarations of support or opposition; and some
outright disapproval of both the nomination and the nominee. African American and
Hispanic Members, in particular, criticized the nomination, citing their interpretation
of Ford’s record on civil and human rights legislation and an alleged insensitivity to
the plight of poorer Americans.63 The persistent and apparently organized efforts of
Ford’s detractors gave the House deliberations somewhat more of the quality of
debate than was the case in the Senate.
Some highlights of the House debate included the emoluments question, which
was raised and definitively addressed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Rodino, who
cited reports by both the Justice Department and the Congressional Research Service
that concluded the prohibition imposed by the Constitution did not apply to the Ford
nomination.64 Another point frequently emphasized by both supporters and opponents
was their expectation that the Vice President would soon succeed to the presidency,
and that Congress was, in reality, actually electing a President. As Representative
Jerome Waldie noted:
Now each of us will be voting for a President of the United States. One might
suggest that we are voting for a man whose title is Vice President of the United
States, and that is true, but the only function of the Vice President is in fact to
succeed to the Presidency, so we really are voting for the President of the United
One Member suggested that the House debate was actually anticlimactic, in light of
the fact that a joint session of Congress had been scheduled that same evening for
61 Ibid., p. 38225.
62 House of Representatives debate on the Ford nomination may be found at “Confirming
Nomination of Gerald R. Ford To Be Vice President of the United States,” Congressional
Record, vol. 119, Dec. 6, 1973, pp. 39807-39899.
63 Ibid., pp. 39834-39835, 39876-39877, 39882-39883.
64 Ibid., pp. 39813-39817.
65 Ibid., p. 39820.
Ford’s swearing-in ceremony, and that network television time had been reserved for
The House subsequently voted overwhelmingly to confirm the Ford nomination,
approving the Vice President by a vote of 387 to 35.67 Ford received unanimous
support from Republican Representatives present and voting, as well as the votes of
201 Democratic Members. A contemporary analysis of the vote noted that Ford’s
margin among “Southern Democrats” was an overwhelming 80 to 2; “northern
Democrats,” while less enthusiastic, supported confirmation by a comfortable margin
of 121 to 33. Ford’s opponents were drawn almost exclusively from what has been
characterized as the “liberal” wing of the House Democrats, and included 11 of 1568
African American Representatives present and voting.
Ford was sworn in at a joint session of Congress held shortly after the House
added its approval to that of the Senate in confirming him as Vice President of the69
The Rockefeller Nomination
Gerald Ford served barely eight months as Vice President before Richard
Nixon’s resignation catapulted him into the presidency on August 9, 1974. As many
Senators and Representatives had predicted, Nixon resigned in the wake of continuing
revelations of criminal misconduct during the Watergate coverup. It was in these
circumstances, scarcely less dramatic than those leading to Ford’s confirmation, that
Congress considered yet another nomination for the vice presidency, that of Nelson
A. Rockefeller, former Governor of New York, and a scion of one of America’s
richest families. Although Congress followed most of the precedents established for
the Ford nomination, the process was complicated by the fact that Rockefeller’s
personal finances were extraordinarily complex, and required a lengthy investigation.
President Richard Nixon fought a losing battle to save his presidency during the
first seven months of 1974. He was threatened on several fronts. Special Prosecutor
Leon Jaworski, who had replaced the dismissed Archibald Cox on November 1, 1973,
continued to press for the release of additional tapes of Nixon's conversations
concerning Watergate. After the President, citing executive privilege, refused to
66 Ibid., p. 38935.
67 Ibid., p. 39899.
68 Three African American Members did not vote, while one voted to confirm the Ford
nomination. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1973, vote 468, pp. 146-147-H.
69 “Joint Meeting of the House and Senate for Swearing-In of Gerald R. Ford of Michigan as
Vice President of the United States,” “Address of the Vice President of the United States,”
Congressional Record, vol. 119, Dec. 6, 1973, pp. 39925-39926.
70 This section relies substantially on: Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis (Washington:
Congressional Quarterly, 1975).
comply, Jaworski obtained a subpoena requiring their release. Nixon first asked
Judge John Sirica to overturn the subpoena, and, after his refusal on May 20, 1974,
appealed the decision. Meanwhile, on March 1, 1974, Judge Sirica’s original
Watergate grand jury issued a report citing the President as an unindicted co-
conspirator in the coverup. This report was subsequently referred to the House
Judiciary Committee, which had initiated an impeachment inquiry, with hearings that
opened on May 9, 1974. In addition to Watergate, the committee also investigated
various allegations of campaign funding and personal financial irregularities leveled
against the President.
In July, Nixon received several politically fatal blows. On July 24, the Supreme
Court ruled unanimously that the President must obey Sirica’s order to provide the
special prosecutor with the tapes he requested. Shortly afterward, on August 3, the
House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend Nixon’s impeachment on three
counts (obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress), and floor
debate was scheduled to begin August 19. The first tapes were turned over to
Jaworski on July 30, but on August 5 the President stunned the nation by releasing
transcripts of three crucial White House meetings indicating that he had participated
in the Watergate coverup as early as June 23, 1972. Remaining support for Nixon
evaporated, and senior Republican congressional leaders urged him to resign, which
he did, effective August 9. Gerald Ford was sworn in as President the same day.
Nomination and Confirmation.
On August 20, 1974, President Ford nominated Nelson A. Rockefeller to be
Vice President. Rockefeller had served in a number of appointive federal positions
in both Democratic and Republican Administrations beginning in 1940. Between
periods of public service, he held various jobs in the private sector, including
Rockefeller family interests. In 1958, he was elected to the first of four terms as
Governor of New York, a post he occupied until his resignation on December 18,
1973. He had also been an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential
nomination in 1964 and 1968. Ford’s choice of Rockefeller initially received wide
bipartisan praise from Senators and Representatives. Rockefeller was hailed for his
more than 30 years of public service, in particular his extensive executive experience
as Governor of New York for 15 years.
Although the Rockefeller nomination came to be more contentious than Ford’s,
and consumed more than four months, it broke little new ground with respect to
precedent-setting congressional action: confirmation procedures adopted by the
Senate and House closely followed those set the year before. The nomination was
once again referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the
House Committee on the Judiciary. The FBI again conducted an exhaustive
investigation of the nominee’s life and activities, while the Congressional Research
Service provided a compilation and analysis of his public record. The nominee
submitted a comprehensive financial statement and provided his tax returns for seven
years to committee staff. In the House, one major change in procedure included a
wider dissemination of FBI “raw files” on the nominee: these were made available to
all committee members, in response to criticism of their limited availability in the Ford
confirmation process.71 In addition, for the Rockefeller confirmation, the staff of the
Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation was detailed to assist Judiciary
Committee staff in evaluating the nominee’s personal financial statements.72
Several factors contributed to making the Rockefeller nomination process
lengthier and, in some ways, more emotionally charged than Ford’s had been. The
first was President Ford’s extension of a blanket pardon to Richard Nixon on
September 8. Although his reason for issuing the pardon was to forestall a
“prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment
and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of
relinquishing the highest elective office,”73 it generated just such a debate, arousing
strident criticism from foes of the resigned President. Some observers suggested that
Ford had violated an implicit promise given during his confirmation hearings that he
would probably not issue a pardon under such circumstances. Although criticism
divided largely, though not exclusively, along party lines, many suggested that Ford’s74
“honeymoon” with the American people had been brought to an end by his action.
A second factor delaying the confirmation process was the 1974 congressional
elections, in which 33 of 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee and two75
members of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee faced reelection.
Between the press of end-of-session legislative responsibilities and reelection
campaigning, the Rules Committee was forced to divide its hearings into two widely
separated periods. The first included three sessions held between September 23 and
26, followed by an additional three held between November 13 and 15. The House
Judiciary Committee postponed its hearings until after the elections; these were held
in seven sessions, on November 21 and 22, 25 and 26, and December 2 to 4.
The most serious complicating factors, however, were Rockefeller’s
extraordinarily complex personal finances and questions related to his political
activities during his long tenure as Governor of New York. In the case of personal
wealth, the nominee provided both his personal tax returns for the previous seven
years and an estimate of his net worth. Rockefeller’s advisors had apparently
underestimated his net worth in his initial financial disclosures, however. When
discovered, these omissions led to fuller a examination, which resulted in substantial
upward revisions of the nominee’s net worth, from $ 62.5 million to $ 218 million,
71 U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary, Confirmation of Nelson A. Rockefeller
as Vice President of the United States, report to accompany H.Res. 1511, 93rd Cong., 2nd
sess., H. Rept. 93-1609 (Washington: GPO, 1974), p. 2. (Hereafter referred to as House
Report on Rockefeller Nomination.)
72 Ibid., p. 10.
73 U.S. President (Ford), “Proclamation 4311, Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon,” Public
Papers of the President of the United States: Gerald R. Ford, 1974 (Washington: GPO,
74 "The Impeachment Inquiry," in Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 93rd Congress, 2nd
session, 1974, vol. 30 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1975), pp. 898-901.
75 In addition, five members of the House Judiciary Committee were retiring.
and an assessment of additional personal tax payments for certain years.76 Secondly,
the investigation revealed a series of personal loans and gifts made over the years by
Governor Rockefeller to various friends, political associates, and subordinates. Many
of the loans were repaid only in part, or not at all. Although legal opinions presented
to the committees found nothing in the loans or gifts to be illegal, the question was
raised as to:
... whether or not Governor Rockefeller’s loans and gifts were made for purposes
other than as represented by Governor Rockefeller and the recipients. Were they
made as gestures of affection and friendship or were they made to achieve a gain77
by Governor Rockefeller, or as a reward to the recipients for services rendered?
In the final analysis, both committees indicated their concern over the nominee’s
practice of extending gifts and loans, but, barring any demonstrated legal impropriety,78
gave him the benefit of the doubt. Both committees were equally troubled by
revelations that Rockefeller family interests had underwritten a controversial
campaign biography highly critical of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur
J. Goldberg, Nelson Rockefeller’s opponent in the 1970 gubernatorial election. Both
committees concluded that the nominee had exercised poor judgment in tacitly
approving the book’s publication, and Rockefeller himself publicly apologized to
Goldberg. Finally, both committees expressed concern over the amounts contributed
by the nominee and his family to his own campaigns for Governor and President.79
Hearings in the Senate Rules and House Judiciary Committees involved
sometimes pointed questioning of the nominee, and were generally characterized by
less deference and collegiality than the Ford hearings. Governor Rockefeller testified
on five occasions for a total of over 23 hours before the Rules Committee, and on
three occasions for over 17 hours before the Judiciary Committee. Notwithstanding
substantial opposition from a number of witnesses and Democratic Members, the
nomination was reported favorably in the Rules Committee with a unanimous vote of
with all opposition coming from Democratic members. The bipartisan spirit was,
however, demonstrated by the nine Democrats who joined committee Republicans in
providing the majority to report favorably on December 12.
As was the case with the Ford nomination, floor debate on the confirmation of
Nelson Rockefeller to be Vice President was somewhat anti-climactic. Most of the
substantive points in favor of, or opposition to, the nominee had been thoroughly
76 Feerick, The Twenty-fifth Amendment, p. 168.; U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Rules
and Administration, Nomination of Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York To Be Vice President
of the United States, report, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess., S. Exec. Rept 93-34 (Washington: GPO,
77 Ibid., p. 148.
78 Senate Report on Rockefeller Nomination, pp. 148-149; House Report on Rockefeller
Nomination, p. 9.
79 Senate Report on Rockefeller Nomination, p. 181; House Report on Rockefeller
Nomination, p. 7.
examined in the hearings process and were largely disposed of in the Rules and
Judiciary Committee reports.
The Senate’s confirmation debate, scheduled for a single hour, was held on
December 10, and ended with a favorable vote of 90 to 7.80 Fifty-three Democrats
and 37 Republicans supported the nomination, while three Democrats and four
Republicans opposed it. One Republican who voted “present” explained that he had
done so because he had received a contribution from the nominee in his election
campaign. According to a vote analysis, Democrats who opposed the nomination
were generally identified as “liberals”; the Republicans who voted against it, however,
were characterized as among the most conservative Senators.81
The House adopted rules similar to those used in the Ford confirmation debate:
the rule for consideration, H.Res. 1519, provided six hours of debate, divided evenly
between, and controlled by, the chairman and ranking minority member of the
Judiciary Committee. Rockefeller’s margin of approval in the House (H.Res. 1511
was the vehicle for approval of the nomination) was a comfortable 287 to 128, but the
result reflected the greater opposition the nominee experienced during the hearings
process and the floor debate.82 According to a contemporary analysis of the vote,
Rockefeller, notwithstanding his reputation as a “moderate” or even “liberal”
Republican, enjoyed a much smaller margin of support among “Northern Democrats”
than had the more conservative Ford, winning their vote by a narrow margin of 78 to
74. He carried “Southern Democrats” by a margin of 56 to 25, and his fellow
Republicans by 153 to 29. African American Representatives split evenly, seven
voting to approve, and seven to reject, the nomination, while one Black Member did
not vote. Republican opponents tended to be part of the more “conservative” branch
of the GOP in the House.83
80 Senate debate may be found at “Executive Session—Nomination of Nelson A. Rockefeller
To Be Vice President of the United States,” Congressional Record. vol. 120, Dec. 10, 1974,
81 Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1974, p. 76-S.
82 House debate may be found at “Confirming Nelson A. Rockefeller as Vice President of the
United States,” Congressional Record, vol. 120, Dec. 19. 1974, pp. 41419-41517.
83 Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1974, pp. 162-H, 163-H.
The founders’ failure to provide a succession procedure for occasions when the
vice presidency is vacant caused little concern for nearly 150 years of government
under the Constitution. On 16 occasions between 1789 and 1967, the office became
vacant, due to either the Vice President’s accession to the presidency, or his death or
resignation. These vacancies were considered an acceptable risk in an era
characterized by a smaller, less responsible federal government, and the relative
insulation of the United States from world crises. They ceased to be acceptable when
the United States acquired great power status in an unstable world, and the presidency
assumed vastly increased responsibilities. Notwithstanding these changes, it required
the impetus of John Kennedy’s tragic assassination to bring to fruition a constitutional
amendment remedying the original document’s oversight. Only six and seven years
later, Congress was called on to perform its constitutional duty in considering two
vice presidential nominations in successive years, under circumstances that have
almost universally been described as a constitutional crisis. In both cases, it acted
deliberately, yet swiftly, and without excessive partisan rancor, to examine and vote
on the President’s nominee for Vice President. In both cases, it also established
precedents which would be useful, but not prescriptive, in any future implementation
of Section Two of the 25th Amendment.