For the first time in US history, a woman has headed the executive branch, although for barely one hour and 15 minutes.
President Joe Biden temporarily transferred the powers of the presidency to Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday while he was under general anesthesia for a colonoscopy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is the third person — and the first woman — to serve as acting President of the United States.
The executive branch has delegated authority to the legislative for the first time in US history. Before the operation, President Biden submitted two letters to Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, citing section three of the 25th Amendment, which allows a sitting president to temporarily relinquish power. That provision is unique from Section 4, which has never been invoked but is designed to remove a president who has become handicapped and so unable to perform the duties of the office.
President Biden sent letters to Leahy and Pelosi after doctors completed the procedure, stating that he had re-assumed presidential responsibilities.
Harris’s term as acting president began at 10.10 a.m. on Friday and ended at 11.35 a.m., according to a White House official.
In three previous instances, two other presidents – Ronald Reagan and George W Bush – have invoked the same constitutional authority.
Reagan, the oldest president until Biden was sworn in at age 79, handed up the reins of authority to then-Vice President George HW Bush from 11.28 a.m. to 7.22 p.m. on July 13, 1985, when he underwent colon cancer surgery.
When Bush’s son, George W Bush, had colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007, he passed the presidency to Vice President Dick Cheney on both occasions.
“As my staff has previously communicated to you, I will undergo this morning a routine medical procedure requiring sedation. In view of present circumstances, I have determined to transfer temporarily my constitutional powers and duties to the vice-president during the brief period of the procedure and recovery,” Bush penned in a letter to then-Senate -President pro tempore Robert Byrd and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
“Accordingly, in accordance with the provisions of section three of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, this letter shall constitute my written declaration that I am unable to discharge the Constitutional powers and duties of the office of President of the United States. Pursuant to section three, the vice-president shall discharge those powers and duties as Acting President until I transmit to you a written declaration that I am able to resume the discharge of those powers and duties.”
In a similar letter, Reagan said that while he was not required by the constitution to transfer presidential powers to the elder Bush while under anesthesia, he did it nonetheless because of an arrangement with the vice president at the time.
Reagan had previously failed to invoke the amendment before going under anesthesia after he was shot outside the Washington, DC Hilton in 1981, leading to confusion about who had been in charge of the country while he was undergoing surgery to treat his wounds.
Biden’s decision to hand over presidential powers to Harris while asleep for a medical procedure reintroduces a tradition that was put on hold under Donald Trump’s presidency.
At a November 2019 visit to Walter Reed Hospital, Trump reportedly refused to have a colonoscopy so he wouldn’t have to sign a letter allowing then-Vice President Mike Pence to function as acting president during that time.