If anyone would have guessed before the debate which candidate would make an error on a Constitutional question, odds would have heavily favored Sarah Palin. After all, Joe Biden has a license to practice law and has served in Congress more than half his life, while Palin has a degree in journalism and has never worked in Washington at all. And yet, Biden blew the one question on the Constitution — on the topic of the job he seeks:
BIDEN: Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.
And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.
First, let’s deal with the hyperbole of the initial statement, because the rest of the gaffe flows from that point. Democrats love to call Dick Cheney “the most dangerous vice president” in American history, but why is Cheney such a danger? What has he done that makes him so dangerous? Is he more dangerous than Aaron Burr, for instance, who killed Alexander Hamilton while in office and who later attempted a rebellion of sorts? And if he’s so dangerous, what has Joe Biden done as a United States Senator to curb that danger?
Biden then goes on to get the Constitution completely incorrect. In fact, the Constitution states that the Vice President is always the President of the Senate, in Article I, Section 3:
The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
In fact, as Cheney pointed out, the Vice President gets defined in the Constitution in both Article I and Article II, making the office part of both branches of the federal government. Cheney’s argument that this gave him some sort of immunity from producing documents was absurd, but his reading of the Constitution was absolutely correct. The VP belongs to both the executive and the legislative branches of government — and has almost no power in either, but still gets defined in the Constitution as a member of both branches.
Stephen Dinan notes that modern practice has led to historical and Constitutional illiteracy:
The Constitution, though, actually says the vice president is always president of the Senate and legal scholars say he has the right to preside at any time. Early vice presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, actively exercised that role, the vice president still keeps offices at the Capitol, and scholars say it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the vice president had an office at the executive office building.
The president pro tempore, usually the senior senator from the majority party, takes over only when the vice president is absent. In recent practice, as the vice president has taken a bigger role in the executive, that’s meant the Senate operates almost all of the time without the vice president in the chair.
Maybe Biden should take the time to actually read the Constitution. He can borrow Robert Byrd’s pocket version if he can’t find a copy on his own. Who knew Sarah Palin was a more competent Constitutional scholar than Joe Biden?