To be honest, of all the constitutional questions which pop up from time to time, this is one that I never saw coming. We’ve seen calls for a new Constitutional Convention (where God only knows what could happen) to undoing the 17th Amendment to former SCOTUS justices wanting to entirely rewrite the Second Amendment. None of these are terribly surprising and some are certainly worth a national conversation. (Okay.. not so much the last one.) But this week, Seth Mandel at Commentary and Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway engage in seemingly serious proposal which would involve a fundamental change to the nation’s constitutional structure: getting rid of the office of the Vice President.
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.
Mataconis grants that the modern version of the Vice Presidency seems silly to a certain degree, but then goes on to point out there are still important – though limited – functions to the office, and that historically it has played an important role. He summarizes thusly.
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.
With some exceptions I have to agree with the latter argument. Sure, with a guy like Biden residing at the U.S. Naval Observatory it’s easy to say that there’s not much point in writing that particular paycheck every month. But as Doug points out, the office does still fulfill some rather critical functions, albeit ones which are rarely called into play. Careful whip counts ensure that a tie in the Senate is nearly as rare as Chris Matthews saying something sensible, but it can still happen and the President Pro Tempore has to be available to break that tie. Looming much larger is the fact that Presidents are human beings, and sometimes they die. While I disagree with Mandel about the possibility of changing the party in power during such an ascension being a thing to be avoided, it would still require a major national push to come up with an acceptable method of naming the replacement which would make it through the amendment process.
Also, I think it’s unfair to summarily dismiss the the importance and power of the office out of hand. Yes, Joe Biden seems to harken back to a time when the veep was used for little more than “weddings and funerals” which the POTUS didn’t want to attend. But that seems to be more the exception than any sort of rule defining the office as not being as valuable as a bucket of warm spit. While any concrete policy action taken by the veep still needs the official imprimatur of the boss, it’s difficult to argue that even recent VPs have commanded considerable power. Dick Cheney was arguably one of the most powerful Vice Presidents in American History, with enormous discretion in matters of both military action and domestic energy policy. George H.W. Bush was widely known to be an essentially free agent in many aspects of national security and covert operations. And Al Gore was … er… well, inventing the internet ain’t just chopped liver.
Even if the popular will existed to get rid of the office, I think Doug is right. It would just be far more trouble than it was worth. And we do need the ability to immediately, formally and completely change the hand on the tiller in the event of a sudden national crisis like the loss of the President. Waiting around for some special election with a caretaker in charge or for wrangling between political parties would be disastrous. If you elect a President, you just take the veep as part of a package deal.