Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Change the Vice Presidency, Not Vice President

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Change the Vice Presidency, Not Vice President

Article excerpt

With Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, well into the process of selecting a running mate, and pundits breathlessly speculating on how this or that candidate might help or hurt the ticket, it's a good moment to pause and ask: Why do we have a vice president in the first place?

The office, after all, is fairly useless, and historians and law professors have long made strong cases for getting rid of it. But consider the prospect of reforming it instead. Perhaps we can change the constitutional status of the vice president in ways that could improve our politics.

The vice president presides over the Senate and can cast a vote to break a tie. Other than that, it's hard to explain exactly what the vice presidency is for, except for the unseemly death watch implicit in the rules of presidential succession. John Adams, the first to hold the post, called it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." John Nance Garner, who gave up his role as speaker of the House to become Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, famously observed that the office "isn't worth a bucket of warm spit" -- although "spit" is probably not what he actually said.

As legal scholars have pointed out, the vice presidency is an office so poorly thought out that should a vice president ever be impeached, the presiding officer at the trial would be ... the vice president!

We have come a long way. Our modern activist vision of the vice presidency is ascribed variously to President Harry Truman (who insisted that the National Security Act of 1947 make the vice president a member of the National Security Council) and President Jimmy Carter, who relied heavily on Vice President Walter Mondale and, for the first time, gave the vice president an office in the West Wing. As Joel K. Goldstein has pointed out, this modern vice presidency is attractive to the politically ambitious because of the ways it enhances the reputation of its occupant. (About one in three U.S. presidents were formerly vice presidents.)

But it isn't clear that we need one. …

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