Here’s a question that the pundits haven’t asked: Is Sarah Palin qualified to preside over the United States Senate? After all, that is the only job function of the vice-presidency specified in the Constitution. Yet Palin friends and foes alike obsess over her “qualifications” for the presidency — an office she’s not actually running for. Sure, a vice president may succeed to the presidency due to the latter’s death, resignation or removal, but in 56 U.S. presidential elections, only nine winners did not complete their four-year term. That’s one-in-seven or less than 15%. (And consider several presidents died of injuries or illnesses that are treatable by modern medicine.)
The vice president’s ex officio role as president of the Senate has largely been forgotten. Aside from breaking the occasional tie vote (Dick Cheney has cast eight such votes in seven-plus years), nobody actually expects the vice president to fulfill his or her constitutional duties anymore. This is consistent with the general apathy exhibited towards the Constitution’s text, particularly among the political class.
On September 7, 1787, the delegates to the Philadelphia convention debated whether it was wise to have the vice president serve as head of the Senate. Elbridge Gerry and George Mason, two of the three delegates who refused to sign the final Constitution, objected the co-mingling of the executive and legislative branches. In James Madison’s account of the debate, Gerry argued, “We might as well put the President himself at the head of the Legislature. The close intimacy that must subsist between the President & vice-president makes it absolutely improper.” In rebuttal, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman said that without the Senate duties, the vice president “would be without employment.”
Obviously, the Framers failed to anticipate Dick Cheney, who managed to create the first “Imperial Vice Presidency” by exploiting the second office’s constitutional vagueness — neither an executive nor legislative officer he be. To John McCain’s credit, he’s rejected Cheney’s example by selecting Mrs. Palin, who will likely follow the modern vice-presidential model pioneered by Richard Nixon in the 1950s: A partisan cheerleader who allows the president to appear “above the fray” within the high altar of the Imperial Presidency.
But even the Nixon model raises an interesting question: Why is there an Office of Vice President at all? There’s little compelling reason for the taxpayers to spend over $200,000 in salary and several million dollars more on staff, housing and transportation for a person who does little more then serve as an emergency backup. As I documented a few months ago, there have been 18 periods in U.S. history — several lasting nearly a full four-year term — where the vice presidency has been vacant. The Republic survived. The Senate learned to run itself without the vice president sitting on the dais. So why continue to support a mini-bureaucracy dedicated to . . . an unspecified function?