The Uncharted Consequences of a Presidential Vacancy


As the recent presidential debate revealed Joe Biden’s struggles with physical and mental decline, Democrats are increasingly questioning whether it’s wise to re-nominate him for a second term. But the implications of a presidential vacancy go far beyond the concerns about Vice President Kamala Harris ascending to the presidency. With Congress’ narrow margins, a sudden change in leadership could drastically alter the balance of power in the legislative branch.

At the time of Biden’s inauguration in 2021, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by a slim majority, while the Senate was evenly divided at 50-50. If Biden’s health had declined during the 117th Congress, Harris would have become president, and the office of vice president would have become vacant. This would have created a 50-50 split in the Senate, with no party holding a majority.

Under these circumstances, confirming a new vice president would have been challenging. The 25th Amendment provides for the nomination of a new vice president, who would take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress. However, in a 50-50 Senate, Democrats would have needed at least one Republican vote to confirm a new vice president. Senators would have faced difficult choices, weighing the need for national security against the potential backlash from their constituents.

One potential solution would be for Republicans to support a consensus nominee for vice president in exchange for a power-sharing agreement that would prevent the new vice president from using their tie-breaking vote to push through partisan legislation. However, this scenario would likely be met with resistance from Democrats, who would view it as a partisan power grab.

The scenario described above may seem unlikely, but it has an air of realism about it. The polarization of the country and the tightness of the November election make it possible for either party to find themselves in a situation where only the vice president’s tie-breaking vote keeps them in control of Congress. Control of the House of Representatives is also on a knife’s edge, with both parties likely to have a narrow margin when the next Congress convenes.

If Donald Trump takes office in January 2025, he will be older than Biden was upon entering the presidency in 2021, and will be older at the end of his term than Biden is today. Control of the Senate and unified control of Congress could come down to which individual occupies the office of vice president. The decline in health of the two oldest major-party candidates could take the country into uncharted constitutional and political territory.

Christopher Jacobs
Christopher Jacobs
Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book The Case Against Single Payer.

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