The Vice President's Constiutional Role

03 October 2008

At last night's debate, Palin said this:

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.

Is that even an answer? There was a real question here, and Palin just said something vague about "flexibility." Does she think that the Vice President is immune from Executive branch oversight? I can't tell. I don't know if she's even familiar with the issue that Ifill raised. I doubt it.

When asked his opinion, Biden said this:

IFILL: Vice President Cheney's interpretation of the vice presidency?

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.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.

While it is true that the Vice President's role is somewhat described in Article I of the Constitution, it should be noted that Article I describes the role of the Legislature, not the role of the Executive. It says that "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided. "

Biden's specific argument about the Vice President and the Constitution was wrong insofar as he confused Article I and Article II.

That being said, I think it's also worth pointing out that Article II (the one dealing with the Executive branch) describes how the President and Vice President are to be elected, and how each could be removed. Although Article II doesn't grant the Vice President any new powers (such as how Article I gives him the power to tie-break certain votes), I think it is far more reasonable to consider the Vice President to be a part of the Executive branch, since that is the Article that establishes the fundamental existence of the Vice Presidency. In that respect, I think that Biden is right and Cheney is wrong (Palin is neither right nor wrong - she's just clueless). Just because the Vice President has a limited Legislative role does not mean that he can evade rules that apply to the Executive branch.

UPDATE: Looking back, if Biden had just said "II" instead of "I," he would have been fine.

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