25th Amendment vs. Impeachment: How to Explain the Difference to Kids

As the national conversation around impeachment and the 25th amendment ramps up, here are the basics in case your child asks.

An image of a gavel on a colored background.
Photo: Getty Images (1).

In the wake of the January 6 domestic terror attack, which was incited by the sitting president, the buzz around the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—which is regarded as the last resort to remove a rogue or incapacitated president—as well as impeachment has reached a fever pitch. Both Democrats and Republicans, as well as some Cabinet members, have reportedly discussed whether it is appropriate and possible to use either method to remove Donald Trump from office with less than two weeks until Inauguration Day.

It's possible the news has piqued your child's curiosity and raised questions at home. Here's how experts recommend explaining the difference between the 25th Amendment and impeachment in terms simple enough for an elementary school-aged student.

1. Share the Basics of the 25th Amendment

History can always be a helpful jumping off point to offer context for a constitutional amendment. Christopher R. Riano, president of the Center for Civic Education and a lecturer in Constitutional Law and Government at Columbia University, recommends explaining that Congress determined that the amendment was necessary following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. They also held in mind the fact that his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, suffered major heart attacks.

"While there had been a pretty stable transition of power at times when you have presidents like Abraham Lincoln [who were assassinated or incapacitated], Congress felt they really needed a clearer way to look at presidential secession and the continuity of the presidential office," says Riano.

In turn, they passed the 25th Amendment, referred to as Presidential Disability and Succession, on July 10, 1965, and it was ratified on February 10, 1967.

It has been invoked six times since then:

1. Gerald Ford became vice-president when Richard Nixon's first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, in 1973.

2. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford then became president.

3. Ford then appointed Nelson Rockefeller as vice-president.

4. When President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery in 1985, Vice President George Bush became Acting President in 1985.

5 and 6. When President George W. Bush underwent surgery in 2002 and 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney became Acting President.

You can explain that the amendment has four sections:

Section 1: The first section of the 25th Amendment addresses what happens if the president resigns or dies, noting, "In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President."

Section 2: The second deals with the possibility that the U.S. is left without a Vice President, noting, "Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3: The third section tackles what happens if the president signals that he's unable to attend to his duties, reading, "Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President."

Section 4: The fourth section—which is the part currently at the center of national conversation—is also the most complicated, explains Riano. It specifies that if the vice-president and the majority of the Cabinet declare the president unfit, they could remove the president from power.

The section also explains that the president can dispute this move by writing a letter to Congress. The vice-president and the Cabinet would then have four days to dispute him. Congress would then vote, and a two-thirds supermajority would be required to permanently remove him.

Congress also has the power to appoint its own body to review the president's fitness instead of the Cabinet, but the vice-president's cooperation is still required.

A quick way to explain Section 4: "If the president is too disabled to realize his own condition, the amendment also allows the vice-president and a majority of Cabinet officers—those who run the major governmental agencies—to certify that the president is unable to fulfill his duties," says Dr. John R. Vile, professor of political science and Dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "In such a case, the vice president becomes acting president. The president can challenge this finding, in which case Congress decides whether he or she should be restored to the job."

Then discuss why both the Cabinet and Congress are involved.

Lawmakers decided to involve both the Cabinet and Congress, because Congress—our elected body of representatives—is where the majority of federal authority is supposed to reside, explains Riano. "They also wanted to make sure that people closest to the executive, who may have the closest observations of the president, would have the opportunity [to weigh in] as well," he notes.

2. Talk About Impeachment

You can point out that impeachment is an act of Congress in which they decide that somebody should no longer be in an office for a particular reason, and it can involve any sitting federal officer (like a federal judge). It is supposed to occur in the event of high crimes and misdemeanors, and leave a black mark on a presidency, points out the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

3. Explain the Difference Between the 25th Amendment and Impeachment

The 25th Amendment is specific to the line of secession of the presidency and only deals with presidency and vice-president—not the entire federal apparatus. "It is meant to ensure that government can continue to function if something happens to the president," says Riano.

On the other hand, impeachment requires that an article be drafted and a trial-like process take place, making it very different from the 25th Amendment, he says.

4. Note That Many Questions Remain

While Section 4 is the largest part of the 25th Amendment, it's never been used, so even Constitutional scholars are left to ask questions and make hypotheses about how it would work. You can share that as U.S. citizens, we're encouraged to have those same types of debates and dialogues about what it might look like in practice and the circumstances under which it might be used.

Riano adds that parents can emphasize that the best way to understand both the written and unwritten rules of our democracy is by having discussions and debate about hard topics about this no matter your age or grade.

5. Watch a Video That Breaks Down the Concepts

You might find it useful to watch an age-appropriate educational video covering the details of impeachment or the 25th Amendment. A few options:

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