October 27, 2008

Vice-Presidential Duties

A sub-issue in the campaign this year has been what the proper role for the Vice President should be. It's difficult to remember a time that the Vice President took a passive role in the government. Certainly the last two VPs, Cheney and Gore, both exercised substantial amounts of power within their respective Administrations. Executive power, that is.

So when Gov. Palin said in an interview something that sounded a little bit different, people sat up and took notice:
Palin sat for an interview with KUSA-TV in Denver, which has a feature called "Question from the Third Grade." The interviewer asked, "Brandon Garcia wants to know, 'What does the vice president do?'"

"That's a great question, Brandon, and a vice president has a really great job, because not only are they there to support the president's agenda, they're like the team member, the team mate to that president," Palin said.

"But also, they're in charge of the United States Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom. And it's a great job and I look forward to having that job," she said.
But as Glenn Reynolds reminds us in today's Gray Lady, the only actual power or job given to the Vice President in the Constitution is legislative. The Vice President shall serve as President of the Senate and can cast a vote in the Senate if the Senate is evenly tied on an issue. Prof. Reynolds ignores that the Vice President is described as being elected with the President and the office is created in Article II of the Constitution, but his point is well-taken anyway. Aside from that, the portfolio of the office is left to standing ready in the wings to serve as or become President should anything happen to the President.*

Now, Palin's answer is an oversimplification of this. And bear in mind that she was speaking directly to an 8-year-old and only indirectly to us Constitutional scholars. But she's not wrong. She's not quite right, but not really wrong, either.

The history of leaving the Senate to its own devices traces all the way back to the first Vice President, John Adams, who tried to preside over the Senate on a day-to-day basis but was basically booed out of the place by Senators from all sides. They asserted their independence and no Vice President has since been able to go back in the role of President and actually preside over the day-to-day affairs of that body.

These days, the Senate (like the House) does the bulk of its work in committees rather than as an assembled whole. When the Senate as a whole is in session, most of the time it consists of floor speeches that very few people listen to live and which are performed as political theater. There is no point presiding over a Senate in which five or six Senators are shuffling about their desks while one of their number speaks. The chances of one Senator persuading another to change sides or make up their minds on an issue based on something said on the Senate floor is slim at best and as a realistic matter, nonexistent. If a Senator does not know whether to vote "Aye" or "Nay" on S.B. 115, that Senator looks for his (or her) party's whip on the floor, whose job it is to give the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down.

So there isn't a whole lot of point to presiding over the Senate as a normal matter these days anyway. It seems to me that it would the Vice President's prerogative to preside over the Senate whenever he wished to do so. But prudence and a respect for the autonomy of that body dictates that the Vice President exercise that power only rarely, for instance when a close vote is expected and it is anticipated that the Vice President's power to break a tie might be needed.

But that is a matter of tradition rather than one of a strict reading of the Constitution. Bear in mind that when it was originally drafted, the Framers did not contemplate that the President and Vice President would necessarily be of like political minds. Even in its amended state, the Constitution hints in places that the President and Vice President may differ over some things -- like the President's competency to serve when that falls into question.

The truth of it is, a Vice President's day-to-day duties will be largely the result of whatever the President wants that Vice President to do. One of those things could be discharging the function of presiding over the Senate. Given that the office is seen as a proving ground for a future President, the running of some executive function is what we tend to expect the Vice President to do. But it doesn't have to be that way.

* Why do we always say "...if something happens to the President"? That's a euphemism.
The "something" that we are afraid of giving a name to in that phrase is "death." We should say, if we were to speak plain, "...if the President dies while in office." Acknowledging that the President could theoretically die in office is not going to make an event like that any more or less likely to occur, and it certainly should not be seen as advocating or urging the President's death.

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