J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

What Exactly the V.P. Does Every Day

Last July, when Alaska governor Sarah Palin was a long shot at being chosen for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination, she said this on C.N.B.C.’s Kudlow & Co.:

As for that V.P. talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the V.P. does every day? I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that V.P. slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we’re trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S., before I can even start addressing that question.
After John McCain picked Palin as his running mate, some opponents criticized her question “what is it exactly that the V.P. does every day?” as showing ignorance about the position she was seeking. But in fact that question has bedeviled every American Vice President.

Discussing the start of two-party politics in the U.S. of A., Vice President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on 19 Dec 1793:
I am very apprehensive that a desperate Antifederal Party, will provoke all Europe by their insolence. But my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: and as I can do neither good nor Evil, I must be born away by Others and meet the common Fate.
And three days later:
My office renders me so compleatly insignificant that all Parties can afford to treat me with a decent respect which accordingly they do, as far as I observe, or hear or suspect. They all know that I can do them neither much good nor much harm.
Indeed, for many decades Vice Presidents were widely thought to do “neither much good nor much harm”—unless they actually succeeded to office. Becoming President because of the death of one’s predecessor was usually the end of a political career; not until 1904 did a party or voters think that such a President should remain in office. And when Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated because of a stroke, his wife and aides bypassed the Vice President to govern in his name.

That pattern changed with Walter Mondale in 1977. He understood Congress better than his President, and he became a significant voice in the Carter administration. In the last thirty years, only one Vice President has fit the previous mold of an ineffectual placeholder chosen for political reasons. Mondale, Bush, and Gore were important advisors to their Presidents who oversaw particular agencies or initiatives, and Cheney reshaped the executive branch to consolidate great power beneath him, as Barton Gellman’s book Angler shows.

We should therefore interpret Palin’s July question as asking what responsibilities McCain expected to assign to his Vice President, especially if she were to take that office. What exactly would the Vice President do in a McCain administration?

Having accepted the nomination, Palin has been cramming on a lot of subjects. Unfortunately, the role of the Vice President isn’t one of them. In an interview on Monday with the Colorado television station KUSA, Palin gave this answer to a third-grader’s question:
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 teammate to that president, 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...
Video here.

That’s a profound misunderstanding of what the U.S. Constitution states about the Vice President and the Senate in Article I, Section 3:
The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.
Being President of the Senate doesn’t mean that the Vice President is “in charge of the United States Senate.” The framers’ model for a presiding officer was George Washington chairing the constitutional convention: he said almost nothing about the issues, but simply used his authority to ensure delegates respected the process and rules.

The framers didn’t anticipate the quick rise of political parties, which changed everything. Originally the Vice President was elected independent of the President, but the Twelfth Amendment reflected how parties were pairing candidates for the two offices. Meanwhile, as Adams and every succeeding Vice President found out, the number-two job brought no control over the Senate’s rules or agenda. Senators—especially senior ones like John McCain—are very protective of their privileges and independence.

“President of the Senate” quickly became a courtesy title. Vice Presidents rarely even attend Senate sessions anymore. Even third-graders can understand the difference between a ceremonial role and being “in charge.”

So we’re back to the question of what exactly the V.P. would do every day in a McCain-Palin administration. If Vice President Palin really would help “make a lot of good policy changes,” she’d do that through responsibilities granted by President McCain, not through her courtesy post on Capitol Hill. Palin’s misguided and non-specific answer to KUSA implies that McCain hasn’t informed her of any role beyond being “a team member.” And the running mates’ differing statements on other matters (e.g., increasing funds for special education, campaigning in Michigan) imply that they have yet to discuss a lot more things.


Brad Hart said...

great post, Mr. bell. In addition, I think it is important to remember the comment she made during the V.P debate when she actually suggested that she might, "expand" the powers of the V.P. Further evidence that she does not understand the basic job description.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. Palin’s exact comments were: “Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.”

And in a follow-up comment: “We know what a vice president does. And that’s not only to preside over the Senate and we’ll take that position very seriously also. I’m thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president’s policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are. John McCain and I have had good conversations about where I would lead with his agenda. That is energy independence in America and reform of government overall, and then working with families of children with special needs.”

I think she’s wrong about the framers being wise in defining the Vice Presidency as they did. John Adams certainly didn’t appreciate their vagueness!

David Mabry said...

Many of my junior high school students have a better understanding of the role of vice president than she does. Where did she come from? Jeez!

Robert S. Paul said...

I'm going to state first and foremost that I do not like Sarah Palin politically.

However, she's sort of moving in line with Bush's Unitary Executive idea. Obviously, no VP has ever done much in the Senate, but the Constitution really only says she has no vote, not that she can't give an opinion or work with Senators on things.

This is not an interpretation I agree with, since tradition has shown us that it has never been the case. Adams tried and was shut down for it.

But I think that, basically, she's saying that's what she'd like to do as VP, whether that's what others are doing or not.

J. L. Bell said...

Dick Cheney was a high-ranking member of the House of Representatives before he became Secretary of Defense, C.E.O. of Halliburton, and Vice President. He was therefore somewhat in Mondale’s position in 1977: knowing more about how the Capitol worked than his President, who had been a state governor.

As I recall, Cheney got an office in the Capitol and consulted with the Republican leaders there on many issues. He no doubt exercised more influence over Congress than his few tie-breaking votes in and few moments of presiding over the Senate would indicate.

But that’s still a long way from being “in charge of the United States Senate,” as Palin said.