Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Law: The Executive Office of the Vice President: Constitutional and Legal Considerations

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Law: The Executive Office of the Vice President: Constitutional and Legal Considerations

Article excerpt

For approximately a century and a half, the vice president of the United States largely performed two duties: presiding over the deliberations of the Senate and standing ready to succeed to the presidency in the event the incumbent was not available to execute the responsibilities of that office. In the deliberations of the federal convention at Philadelphia, the vice presidency was something of an afterthought, and only came to the attention of the delegates in the closing days of their deliberations. Delegate Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, during the proceedings of September 7, 1787, observed that "such an officer as vice-President was not wanted" by many in the convention and "was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time" (Farrand 1937, 2:537). Some at the convention apparently thought that by having the electors vote for two presidential candidates from separate states, a better consensus of support for the top two executive leaders would result, and the men so selected would be of high caliber and stature. Other problems were solved by making the vice president the presiding officer of the Senate. "If the vice-President were not to be President of the Senate," commented delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut, "he would be without employment, and some member by being made President [of the Senate] must be deprived of his vote" (Farrand 1937, 2:537).

Initial Assignments

The first vice presidents--John Adams and Thomas Jefferson--were, indeed, men of great character and unquestioned ability, as the framers of the vice presidential office had hoped. The position, however, was not much appreciated. Adams complained in a January 23, 1791, letter to John Trumbull that he found "the office I hold, though laborious, so wholly insignificant, and ... so stupidly pinched and betrayed, that I wish myself again at the bar, old as I am" (Adams 1854, 9:573). Jefferson, a few years later, in a May 13, 1797, letter to Elbridge Gerry, would more kindly characterize the vice presidency as "honorable and easy," but wistfully regarded the presidency as "a splendid misery" (Lipscomb and Bergh 1903, 9:381).

Throughout the nineteenth century, the vice presidency was regarded as a legislative position, the primary duty being to preside over the deliberations of the Senate. Both Adams and Jefferson held this view, the former breaking 29 Senate voting deadlocks and the latter relying on this stance as a basis to decline other assignments from the president, such as a diplomatic mission, and to protect his leadership of the opposition party. In his May 13, 1797, letter to Gerry, Jefferson stated, "I consider my office as constitutionally confined to legislative functions, and that I could not take any part whatever in executive consultations" (Lipscomb and Bergh 1903, 9:382). It is not surprising, therefore, that the vice president, for many years, was not included in cabinet deliberations. John Adams apparently attended one cabinet meeting, but the president was not present at this particular gathering (Fenno 1959, 19; Lipscomb and Bergh 1903, 1:278, 8:278). Exclusion of the vice president from such discussions meant that cabinet members were often more and better informed about the policies and practices of an administration than the man who might be required to lead that administration in the event of the president's death.

The situation changed as a consequence of the dramatic alteration of the status of the United States in the world order after the conclusion of World War I. In 1919, at President Woodrow Wilson's request, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall presided over a few cabinet meetings while Wilson was in France negotiating the peace treaty concluding the recent hostilities. Thereafter, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, at the invitation of President Warren G. Harding, met regularly with the cabinet. Upon his election to the presidency in 1924, Coolidge was greeted with a reversal on this matter when his vice president, Charles G. …

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