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Should We Eliminate The Vice-Presidency?

Seal Of The Vice Preisdent Of The United States

Responding in part to my post about the seemingly weak Democratic bench for Vice-President, Seth Mandel at Commentary suggests its time to get rid of the office of Vice-President entirely:

We don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president. We can free ourselves by getting rid of the vice presidency altogether. First and foremost, the vice presidency has strayed-and actually, it did so almost from the very beginning-from the Founders’ idea of the position, which they weren’t exactly wild about to start with. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1974 Atlanticessay:

The vice presidency was put into the Constitution for one reason, and one reason alone. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee that originated the idea, conceded at the Convention that “such an office as vice-president was not wanted. It was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.” This is an essential but neglected point. The theory of presidential elections embodied in the Constitution was that if electors had to vote for two men without designating which was to be President and which Vice President, and if one of these men had, as the Constitution required, to be from another state, then both men who topped the poll would be of the highest quality, and the republic would be safe in the hands of either. …

In 1800 the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal. Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency. The fear of comparable slipups in 1804 led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment requiring the electoral college to vote separately for President and Vice President.

The abolition of the “valuable mode of election” canceled the purpose of the Founding Fathers in having a Vice President at all.

Indeed it did. What’s frustrating about the evolution of the vice presidency is that it was not only predictable but predicted. All throughout American history politicians and commentators offered nothing toward the office but acid and pity. (Schlesinger’s own article begins: “We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy.”)

(…)

So who would replace the vice president in the line of automatic succession? Anyone else would possess less electoral legitimacy than the current vice president unless it was a leader of one of the houses of Congress, in which case upon presidential vacancy the high office could switch parties without an election, an outcome that should be avoided.

Perhaps someone-the secretary of state, say-could take over on a provisional basis while a national election could be organized. Ideally they would not be considered “president,” but that has its own drawbacks: could they sign bills or treaties? The following election would have to take place relatively soon, which means a brief nominating and general-election period. But that has advantages. After all, we have the opposite now, and we’re left filling time and space by talking, regrettably, about vice-presidential nominees.

Mandel is correct that, at least as far as the Constitution is concerned, there seems to be very little point to the Vice-Presidency. Outside of succeeding to the office if a President dies in office or resigns, or doing so on a theoretically temporary basis pursuant to the provisions of the 25th Amendment, and breaking ties in the Senate there really isn’t much that a Vice-President has to do. Indeed, it’s only been relatively recently in the history of the United States that Vice-Presidents have taken on a prominent role in Presidential Administrations or been considered to be of anything other than passing interest during the course of a Presidential campaign. All of those additional duties that Vice-Presidents have today, though, exist solely at the discretion of the President who could, at any time, decide that he really doesn’t want his Vice-President doing much of anything. At its roots, the Vice-Presidency is a powerless institution, and that was as true under the Constitution as originally drafted as it is today. Given that, it does seem at times like an unnecessary institution, but that strikes me as a superficial way of looking at things.

For example, Mandel’s colleague Jonathan Tobin points out that the office played an important role in the early years of the Republic:

The gravest doubts about the survival of the American political experiment in its earliest years often centered on the question of legitimacy and succession. Would a president, especially one like George Washington, who was the idol of the country, ever willingly step down and lay the foundation for the future of democracy rather than have the republic quickly lapse into tyranny or monarchy as most previous such experiments had done? Would an incumbent that was defeated for reelection choose to peacefully hand over the government to his opponents?

Washington and Adams answered those questions in the affirmative to their everlasting honor. But still unanswered was the question as to what would happen if a president died? Would there be chaos? Would the government be at a standstill until a new election could be held? Having a vice president who was already voted into office by the same Electoral College created a stable process that kept the system from running off the rails in the event of a calamity. Indeed, when William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, passed away a month after his inauguration there were doubts about what would happen. But John Tyler slid neatly into Harrison’s place and the republic survived with no apparent trouble. The same has happened every time since then when America found itself with an accidental president.

Had there been no Vice-President in 1841, then the Presidency would have gone to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate under the Presidential Succession Act in force at the time,  a man named Samuel Southard from New Jersey.   I have no idea what kind of politician Mr. White was, but as Tobin points out, he would have lacked the kind of national legitimacy that someone who was elected on the same ticket as the President himself arguably has. As it was there were questions at the time about whether or not Tyler was “really” the President when he succeeded Tyler, those questions were answered in the affirmative in no small part due to the fact that Tyler had been nationally elected rather than just having been appointed by the legislature of a single state. In its first real test, the Vice-Presidency fulfilled the role that the Founders had intended for it and it has done so on seven other occasions in American history. For that reason alone, it seems to me that the institution has proven its utility.

Finally, it doesn’t strike me that the Vice-Presidency, or the selection of a Vice-Presidential running mate during the course of a Presidential campaign pose a big enough distraction for American politics to justify the kind of serious Constitutional change that eliminating the office would require. If there were no Vice-President, then we’d have to come up with some new rules about Presidential succession, for example. As long as there are an even number of states, we’d have to figure out how to deal with the possibility of tie votes in the Senate. Both of these would require detailed Amendments to the Constitution that would be, at best, in terms of their effectiveness. On the downside, there are very few examples in history that one can point to of Vice-Presidents that were actually harmful. Aaron Burr would certainly seem to qualify, although the worst of his contributions to history came after he was dumped from the 1804 re-election ticket. Spiro Agnew certainly belongs on the list because of his forced resignation, although the activities that led to that occurred prior to the 1968 Election. And many people would put Dick Cheney on the list, although its worth noting that Cheney’s influence in the Bush Administration declined significantly during Bush’s Second Term, and that it doesn’t appear that the two men parted company on the best of terms. Three bad examples out of 47 Vice-Presidents over the course of 225 years doesn’t strike as a reason for radical changes, though.

The vast majority of our Vice-Presidents have been rather forgettable characters, and that’s likely to be true of the men and women that follow them in that office in the years to come. However, as John Adams said “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” For that reason alone, it strikes me that its worth keeping the office around.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    If you are named Vice-President, you might have an entire aircraft carrier class named after you 40 years later. Not bad.

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  2. ernieyeball says:

    In my lifetime the Office of Vice President USA has provided this image:
    http://cdn.ph.upi.com/Archives/Audio/85702ef89fab3c9cf2281f5781805f82/.jpg
    and these words:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLyX4DbE6Hc
    Don’t know about the practicality of the position but the drama has been extraordinary!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. @John Peabody:

    You mean I too could end up like Vice President John Enterprise? Cool!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Obama is the 44th President since 1789. In that time nine VPs have become President, 8 by death and one by resignation. Presidents tend to be fairly old, and are subject to a real threat of assassination. Were there not a recognized successor already in place, an enemy might be tempted to open a war by attacking the President. Seems useful to have a VP in the blocks, ready to go. Don’t see any particular downside to having a VP. Mandel says

    We don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president.

    I’m unaware we were agonizing over it, anyone except the presidential nominee.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I think he meant the Ford class. The USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN 78, is currently building at Newport News.

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  6. Mu says:

    I wonder how the even number of states influences the possibility of ties in the senate…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  7. bill says:

    the “biden effect” in full force! as much as i can’t stand obama, “president biden” would actually be worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 13

  8. grumpy realist says:

    Wasn’t there the comment that Dan Quayle was picked as VP simply as deterrence against disgruntled Americans taking potshots at the POTUS?

    (Given what we saw later (Dubya), I would have preferred an ordinary individual like Quayle.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. rudderpedals says:

    Mandel would toss it for some ancient reason but it seems to me the utility of the office serves other purposes in addition to those Doug identified. Things like the veep’s diplomatic stature, his office’s resources in pursuing tasks assigned by the Pres, and during the election it serves as a badge or quality marker of how well or poorly the top of the ticket does at making difficult but important choices in its pick for the running mate.

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  10. Pinky says:

    @rudderpedals: Exactly. The Vice-President is nothing, but he can be anything.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. al-Ameda says:

    It, the position of Vice President, is most certainly not irrelevant.

    In my lifetime the 3 most salient examples of that non-irrelevancy are LBJ, GHW Bush, and Dick Cheney. As we know, JFK was assassinated, Reagan nearly assassinated, and Dick Cheney was, by many accounts, the most powerful VP in our history.

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  12. John Reagan says:

    Article Two of the United States Constitution creates the executive branch of the government, consisting of the President, the Vice President, and other executive officers and staffers appointed by the President, including the Cabinet.

    The VP spot is pretty innocuous. Why bother. We have so many other pressing problems, why redesign our system now?

    As to VPs being forgettable, how about those that succeeded the President for whatever reason, like Nixon, Ford, Lyndon Johnson or Bush Sr? (and other notables such as Jefferson and John Adams). IMO, if the administration is successful, then the VP tends to fill the shoes of the departing President to carry on his legacy.

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  13. ratufa says:

    @ernieyeball:

    The Office of Vice President USA has also provided this image:

    http://images.politico.com/global/2012/09/biden_bikers_605_ap.jpg

    which, by itself, is sufficient reason to keep the office.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

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  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mu: I was going to bring this point up, but you beat me to it.

    @ the downvoter: the fact that there are 2 senators from each state guarantees an even number of senators regardless of the number of states. It’s called arithmetic.

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  16. Tillman says:

    You could give the Vice President more institutional power, perhaps expand the powers of the vice presidency in the Senate. Imagine transferring some of the authorities of the Senate Majority Leader to the Vice President.

    The Framers designed Congress to be the pre-eminent branch, and with such an inactive Congress as ours, I’m not entirely opposed to giving the executive more power over at least one of the Congress’s chambers.

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  17. Tyrell says:

    @bill: I have always thought of Joe Biden as an honorable and nice guy. Says some strange things sometimes, but has also given some great speeches (2011 anniversary of 9-11).
    Have there been any vice presidents who were actually much better than the president? I can think of one right away: Teddy Roosevelt. It is rumored that he actually said that the best thing McKinley did was manage to get himself shot.
    Humphrey was another good one, but served under the giant Lyndon Johnson, one of the most skillful and powerful politicians ever.

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  18. Tyrell says:

    @ratufa: There’s nothing slow about Ol’ Joe!!

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  19. Andre Kenji says:

    Interesting enough, but there is no vice-president in Mexico. There are many particularities of the Mexican Political system that are popular among US Conservatives, like term limits.

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  20. ernieyeball says:

    @Andre Kenji:..There are many particularities of the Mexican Political system that are popular among US Conservatives, like term limits.

    Sometimes…It seems to depend on whose terms are being limited.

    Ratified by the states in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was an “undisguised slap at the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote Clinton Rossiter, one of the era’s leading political scientists. It also reflected “a shocking lack of faith in the common sense and good judgment of the people,” Rossiter said…When Ronald Reagan was serving his second term, some Republicans briefly floated the idea of removing term limits so he could run again.

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/end-presidential-term-limits/

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  21. Jeremy says:

    @ernieyeball:

    Yeah but everybody raises the notion of getting rid of the 22nd amendment. Democrats have been doing it during the Obama Administration, Republicans did it during Bush II, I’m sure Dems did it during Clinton I…saying someone put forth a proposed amendment to repeal the 22nd amendment means nothing these days.

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  22. trumwill says:

    First and foremost, this strikes me as a problem in search of a solution. Second, it’s a solution that could create problems, or would create complications at the least.

    First and foremost, it’s not a bad thing that a President cannot fire a Vice President. It means that, as the scandalous noose around a president tightens, he can’t start cutting deals to make sure he gets a pardon. Of course, the only time this has happened we had an appointed VP anyway. But that’s suboptimal and shouldn’t be baked into the cake.

    Whomever the President picks would have to be confirmed by the Senate, which opens up another can of worms.

    Second, you want a Secretary of State who is going to be the Secretary of State. Bill Clinton appointed a SecState that wasn’t even eligible for the presidency. You can create a contingency by bumping up the Secretary of the Treasury, but there again you want the Secretary of the Treasury to be the best person for that job and not the best president-in-waiting. And you want to avoid the complication of the president bumping someone from Treasury to State due to the succession line changing.

    This would be less of an issue if we had called elections instead of regularly scheduled ones, but we don’t and we would for up to nearly four years be stuck with someone who may be really good with numbers but very gaffe-prone, or someone who is a good diplomat but maybe not the ideal president.

    Then there’s the next election. So will the President have to start worrying about electability when nominating somebody for State or Treasury?

    Third, it would complicate the nomination process a great deal. A senate could drag its feat in confirming a Secretary of State because they like the Treasury Secretary. Or members of the president’s own party could worry about giving someone an obvious head start on the presidency the next election.

    You could come up with something else, like say having the senate elect someone from the president’s cabinet, but… why?

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  23. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Well, for one thing, America would never have had the indelible bloody stain on its history known as Dick Cheney.

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  24. ernieyeball says:

    @Jeremy: Yeah but everybody raises the notion of getting rid of the 22nd amendment.

    While there may be some sentiment at times to remove term limits on “The executive Power…” most of the activism I see is to impose term limits on “All legislative Powers…” as described in the USCon.
    I often wonder if US Congress “term limiters” actually have proof that federal governance would improve if they get their way or if they are just trying to make themselves feel better.

    Less Than 7% Of House Seats Are Competitive In 2014
    ernieyeball says:
    Friday, May 30, 2014 at 12:15
    Per NCSL website (National Council of State Legislatures)
    http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/chart-of-term-limits-states.aspx#1
    15 States (AR AZ CA CO FL LA ME MI MO MT NE NV OH OK SD) have term limits of different types that apply to their legislatures.
    What evidence do we have that the laws passed through these chambers are somehow wiser or more efficient than the laws enacted in the other 35 States?
    Would evidence demonstrating better legislation in term limited States confirm that an Amendment to the USCon limiting terms of members of Congress guarantee that superior statutes will then be enacted in DC?

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  25. Pinky says:

    @Jeremy: No, Jeremy, let the grave indictment stand. Some Republicans have been accused of briefly floating the idea. If parties aren’t called to account for what some members briefly float, then where is the meaning in this world? This is a call to arms. There would have been no final solution in Germany if some members of the Nazi Party didn’t first briefly float the idea. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and history is written by the victor (after some victors briefly float the idea). Ask not for whom some bells briefly toll, Jeremy: they toll for thee.

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  26. Jambu Shambu says:

    “As long as there are an even number of states, we’d have to figure out how to deal with the possibility of tie votes in the Senate. ”

    I see Common Core math is already in full effect.

    Doesn’t matter the number of states. There will always be a possible tie since each state has 2 senators. 50X 2 = 100 51 X 2 = 102 53 X 2=106 No matter the number of states, the number of senators is divisible by 2, hence a tie could happen.

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