House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) has plans to introduce legislation that would force major party presidential candidates to undergo a physical exam carried out by a Navy doctor, the results of which would be released to the public. In theory, it sounds great; the president should be physically healthy enough to last at least four years in office and mentally healthy enough to be able to make crucial decisions that affect the entire country, and voters should have that information before making their decisions in the voting booths. The issue has also become very salient because a number of people have questioned President Trump’s sanity and overall mental health. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has come out in favor of the bill, saying that she’d be willing to co-sponsor it once it’s introduced.
However, there might be a few unintended, yet troubling, consequences that could result from this kind of bill. First of all, issues of presidential health, though important, are fundamentally less impactful than substantive policy questions. Releasing the results of medical exams to the public could distract voters from crucial policy issues that have more tangible effects on the country than a president’s health. Indeed, there has been plenty of speculation that if the public knew about John F. Kennedy’s health issues, which included Addison’s disease, chronic back pain, and colitis, the already close 1960 election could have tilted Richard Nixon’s way. I worry that the public would become so hung up on minor health problems being blown up by the partisan media that they would be discouraged from voting for a candidate they might otherwise support.
Second, is presidential health, or more importantly, are a candidate’s private health records, a public matter? Gallup polls found that 96 percent of people think presidential health is an important issue, and 84 percent think presidential candidates should be required to take a medical exam. However, 61 percent believe candidates’ medical records should remain private. If a medical exam revealed any kind of health issue, candidates might be coerced into releasing extremely private information covered in those records or face criticism that they’re hiding something. Should these candidates be forced to release that information?
Ultimately, I believe that voters have a right to know whether presidential candidates are healthy enough to serve the country. If a candidate is suffering from a terminal illness or has a mental illness that could compromise their ability to make decisions, voters should have that information and factor it into their voting decision. I just worry that this information could do more harm than good in a contentious election.