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Vice President's Role in Senate Is Occasionally Critical

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Texas Democrat John Nance Garner once opined that the vice presidency is "not worth a bucket of warm spit." He was in a position to know, having gone from being Speaker of the House to being vice president under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Though a small-government populist, "Cactus Jack," as he was known, faithfully carried the president's New Deal water up Capitol Hill during FDR's first term. He became disenchanted with Roosevelt's policies and advisers in the second term and announced his own availability for the presidency in 1939, regardless of whether FDR ran again. Roosevelt broke the two-term precedent and handily won the nomination and re-election in 1940 with Henry Wallace as his VP. Garner quietly retired to his native Uvalde, Texas, regretting that he ever had left the Speaker's chair.

Garner's colorful metaphor came to mind recently when a foreign diplomat in Washington, D.C., asked two of my colleagues why the vice president of the United States also serves as President of the Senate. They were just as stumped as I was when they later put the question to me. I half-jokingly speculated that the framers had to give the vice president something to do while he waited around for the president to die.

In turning to James Madison's notes from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, I found Delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut confirming my suspicion. A member of the Committee of Eleven that originated the new office, Sherman defended it as follows: "If the vice-President were not to be President of the Senate, he would be without employment." Sherman added that if the Senate elected its own President to preside over the chamber, that Senator's state would be deprived of a vote except when it came to breaking ties (since it was customary for presiding officers to remain neutral in all other instances).

The draft that preceded that of the Committee of Eleven had no vice president and instead provided that the Senate elect one of its own to preside over the body and to fill in as president of the nation when a vacancy occurred. So, the alternative of having a vice president exercise both roles solved two problems. It ensured that no Senator would be deprived of his right to vote at all times, nor have to be absent from the chamber while acting as president of the country.

Alexander Hamilton, in "Federalist No. 68," pointed out that there was nothing new about the concept of a fallback executive. The 1777 Constitution of New York state created a lieutenant governor to preside over the state Senate and take over as governor in the event of a vacancy. And no one objected to that at the time. Even in pre-revolutionary America, lieutenant governors presided over several colonial legislatures.

The role of vice president as the Senate's president could come into sharper focus again in two weeks, when Democrats are expected to gain seats or even control of the chamber. The Constitution provides that the vice president "shall have no vote, unless [the Senators] be equally divided." The smaller the majority's edge, the more likely the vice president will be called upon to break ties. Garner cast only three tie-breaking votes during his eight years as vice president, when Democrats never held fewer than 59 of 96 Senate seats.

On the other hand, our first vice president, John Adams, still holds the record with 29 tie-breakers during George Washington's presidency. Adams also actively participated in Senate debates, lecturing Senators like a school marm. (One Senator wrote in his diary, "For forty minutes he harangued us from the chair.") Eventually he was threatened with a motion to silence him. He subsequently confined himself to procedural utterances only when circumstances required it. Adams' tie-breaking votes included preventing the capital from remaining in New York two more years, blocking war with Britain and ensuring that the president have sole authority to fire his Cabinet appointees (without Senate concurrence).

No vice president since the beginning of the 20th century has cast more than eight tie-breaking votes. However, Vice President Cheney already has cast seven tie-breakers in his nearly six years in office. It was Cheney's very presence as President of the Senate that gave control of the 50-50 chamber to the Republicans for organizational purposes during those critical first months of the Bush presidency, from Jan. 21 until June 6, 2001 (when control flipped to the Democrats with Sen. Jim Jeffords' resignation from the Republican Conference to become an Independent).

During that initial period of Republican control, Cheney cast two tie-breakers on amendments relating to prescription drugs and the marriage penalty tax. Even when Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2003 by a 51-49 margin, Cheney had to cast three tie-breaking votes in that year alone — all on important budget and tax matters. In the current Congress, with Republicans holding a more comfortable 55-45 margin, Cheney has cast just one tie-breaking vote, albeit an important one on the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005.

Lest I leave the misimpression that the vice president's only official role is to preside over the Senate and break ties, there is one other duty under the Constitution worth mentioning. The vice president also is charged with counting the electoral votes for president and vice president and announcing the winners. That will be one of Cheney's last official acts in office in January 2009. It is doubtful, though, that Cheney will be viewed by historians as a mere bucket-toting, tie-breaking, electoral vote-counting VP. As we have seen, the office can be as big as the president wants it to be.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.



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