23 October 2008


Provoked by the Republican candidate for the Vice Presidency, Brad DeLong notices something.
The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate. That means he sits up front. He has the gavel. He chooses who gets to speak next. He chooses when to gavel them to sit down. He makes procedural rulings--which can be overruled by a simple majority vote, it is true, but he makes procedural rulings.

It is true that the Vice President has not traditionally exercised his powers to be President of the Senate. If the President were to tell the Veep to exercise them, it would piss the Majority Leader off--and the Minority Leader too to the extent that the Minority Leader hopes to someday become Majority Leader. But we could someday have a Constitutional Moment, couldn't we? The Vice President could show up and take the chair, right? And then call on and recognize whomever he or she chose and only whomever he or she chose for just whatever purposes he or she chose--and the Veeps decisions would stick, to the extent that he or she was sustained in rulings by fifty-one senators.

Bruce Ackerman at The American Prospect explains this weird little aspect of our government.
Under the original U.S. Constitution, members of the Electoral College didn't cast one ballot for president and one for vice president. The Founders distrusted political parties and sought to minimize their influence. They refused to allow electors to designate a party ticket for a two-candidate slate, as they do today. While electors were each given two ballots, they were told to cast both ballots for the men they considered best qualified for the presidency. The candidate with the most ballots became president; the runner-up became vice president. This system virtually guaranteed that the vice president, serving as president of the Senate, would be the president's principal political antagonist.

But party politics quickly proved too powerful for the Founders' ingenious efforts. During the election of 1800, all the Republican electors voted for the party ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, giving each of them 73 votes in the Electoral College. Although everyone knew that Burr was the party's vice presidential choice, the tie threw the proceedings into the House of Representatives, and the Federalists almost succeeded in making Burr president. When Jefferson finally ascended to the presidency, the Republicans made sure that the problem wouldn't happen again by enacting the Twelfth Amendment, which created the Electoral College voting system we have today.

But the Jeffersonians failed to consider how this constitutional change could transform the Senate presidency into an instrument of presidential power. It inadvertently created a constitutional time bomb that has been ticking for two centuries. It hasn't gone off only because vice presidents have understood that the Senate was its own place and that their constitutional responsibility was to protect the integrity of its procedures.

Ackerman's post is worth reading in full, since it is occasioned by some moves by Vice President Cheney.

1 comment:

Veleda said...

i was and am a huge fan of the the v.p. being the 2nd runner up for the pres. slot. It simply makes sense on a thousand and one levels.

I remember being shocked when i first read about the fact that it used to be that way.. i was like wtf? why on earth did we stop doing that? have we lost our minds??