Ending the Vice Presidency

Sunday’s WaPo put together a collection of half-baked ideas by smart folks, designed to generate controversy and discussion more so than shed serious light on policy ideas.  Thomas Ricks’ suggestion to close the service academies and war colleges got the most attention, overshadowing the abject silliness of Jeremy Lott’s column advocating doing away with the vice presidency, an idea not worth a warm bucket of piss.

The framers of the Constitution got many things right. But when they got things wrong, they were seriously off. Compromising on slavery, for instance. That’s a bad one.

Except for the fact that the Southern states wouldn’t have signed on and we’d have been stuck with the Articles of Confederation, of course.

Fourteen of our 44 presidents started on the bottom of the ticket, a high proportion with ill effects on American politics. The vice presidency has provided a springboard to the nation’s highest office for individuals unlikely to have made it there on their own.

From 1952 to 1972, only one election went by without Richard Nixon on the national ballot. For all his legislative smarts, Lyndon Johnson was an awkward bully who turned off many voters. George H.W. Bush was an also-ran who never would have reached the Oval Office had Ronald Reagan not kept the seat warm for him. (And would George W. have made it if his father hadn’t?)

The vice presidency has also put troubling and divisive men only a heartbeat away. Aaron Burr, Henry Wallace, Al Gore and Dick Cheney came too close for comfort.

Um, Richard Nixon was a respected United States Senator who thrice got his party’s nomination for president, winning two landslides and losing the other in one of the closest contests in history.  Johnson and Bush were the second place finishers in their nominating contests.  Bush would have almost certainly beaten Carter on his own merits.  Further, we’ve had plenty of “troubling and divisive” people get elected to the presidency without a stint as second banana.

Sure, a few vice presidents who get the top job do it well. (Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman come to mind.) But the downsides outweigh the standouts. That’s not surprising, since the office was poorly thought out and has been subject to three constitutional amendments (the 12th, 20th and 25th, for those keeping score).

Only the 12th — which (in effect) makes the VP part of the same ticket as the president rather than the second-place finisher in the presidential race — deals directly with the vice presidency; it was ratified 205 years ago.  The 20th and 25th deal with arcane matters of presidential succession.  The latter of which, incidentally, recognizes the dreadful possibility that the president is killed or incapacitated and there’s a vacancy in the vice presidency and remedies that.

It would be better if the president’s understudy were separately elected by voters,

This is insane. Seriously, we want a backup that’s independently elected and who could, theoretically, have an entirely different agenda than the guy who won?  And who would take office and put in his own people?  Really?

or better yet, if the office simply disappeared. For all the attention their campaign-time selections garner, few voters cast their ballots based on the vice-presidential candidate — even though that person has a nearly one in three chance of going all the way.

Recall, this “one in three” includes cases where the VP wins election in his own right.  But there have been an inordinate number of cases where the sitting president dies in office, mostly suddenly.  What alternative system does Lott propose for dealing with these emergencies?  Why, none at all!  He doesn’t even mention the possibility!

Presumably, then, we’d simply follow the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.  Hello, President Nancy Pelosi!  And, if something should happen to her, hello President Robert Byrd!

UPDATE:  See “Ending the Vice Presidency II” for Lott’s response.

FILED UNDER: The Presidency, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I was amused to see that one of the half-baked ideas was presented by a dear old college chum of mine.

    Isn’t abolishing the vice presidency different from arguing for separate tickets?

    It seems to me that there’s no particularly good argument for abolishing the vice presidency but there’s a pretty good one for giving the vice president some additional constitutional responsibilities and defining the office a little more. For example, it might be nice to codify whether the VP is a member of the executive branch of government.

  2. Eric J says:

    I would go the opposite route – allow the President to designate a Cabinet officer as Vice President. It might require some additional jiggering of responsibilities so that the VP isn’t presiding over the Senate for votes having to do with his/her own department, but it eliminates an entire bureaucracy and the need to find the VP “something to do.”

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Lott disregards one of the important roles of the Vice President — to unite the party behind its Presidential candidate. You can’t bad mouth Henry Wallace and George H.W. Bush, without discounting the Presidencies of FDR and Reagan. These were faction-sealing VPs. Similarly, Gore, Cheney and Biden are all experience-assuring VPs. Getting rid of them mostly raises questions about the experience of their running mates.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I would go the opposite route – allow the President to designate a Cabinet officer as Vice President.

    I think Vice Presidents who assume office already have substantial problems in legitimacy — “His accidency.” A non-elected cabinet officer would have more such problems.

    The other issue is that Cabinet officers are subject to Legislative oversight. A lot of politics (on both sides) and separation of powers issues would be in play.

    That said, I think the death of the President should result in a new election within a year. Whether the VP or a cabinet officer is in charge in the meantime makes a lot less difference then.

  5. Brett says:

    I’d give the Vice President more powers, not eliminate it. For example, right now the Vice President’s main official role (other than successor in case of assassination and/or death of the President) is casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

    Why not extend that, and give the Vice President the power to introduce legislation into Senate committees? He couldn’t vote on it (apart from tie-breaking) when it comes up to a vote, but he could introduce the legislation, and then argue for it both in committee and in the general voting body. It’d be a good way for a President to get the legislation he desires at least brought up to discussion.

    Then again, it would be even more power to the Executive Branch, which is already quite powerful. Still, it would give the VP something to do.