“Hence also sprung that unnecessary & dangerous Officer the Vice President; who for want of other Employment, is made President of the Senate; thereby dangerously blending the executive & legislative Powers; besides always giving to some one of the States an unnecessary & unjust Pre-eminence over the others.”
–George Mason (1)
The Vice President
Today, presidents and vice presidents run on a ticket together. The Twelfth Amendment altered the way electors cast ballots for the two offices. In the original Constitution, electors cast two ballots, and the person who got the most votes became president while the person with the next most votes became the vice president. That procedure resulted in two potential issues, both of which manifested themselves early on. In the 1796 election, the electors chose Federalist John Adams for president and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson for vice president, which created all sorts of problems. In the 1800 election, the electoral college votes tied for Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both of whom were from the same party. That election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which took thirty-six ballots to finally elect Jefferson as president. Now, with the Twelfth Amendment, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president and we avoid both of those problems.
George Mason’s concerns about the dangers of the vice president have not come to pass. With the exception of Dick Cheney in the George W. Bush administration, most vice presidents have not been especially powerful—although some, such as Lyndon Johnson in the John F. Kennedy administration, were fairly useful to the president’s agenda. Vice presidents don’t have many formal powers. One, as Mason mentioned above, is President of the Senate, but that is mostly a formality, and the vice president isn’t even allowed to participate in Senate debates. As President of the Senate, vice presidents only have two formal Senate roles that are meaningful. Vice presidents preside over the electoral college vote-counting, which takes place in a joint session of Congress. The vice president also has the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote if one is needed in the Senate. During the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden cast zero tie-breaking votes. During the first year of the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote on a budget that set the U.S. back on the course of balanced budgets after the deficit-ridden Reagan and George W. Bush years. Early in the Trump administration, Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote to ensure that nominee Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education—a controversial choice, as DeVos never attended a public school, never worked at one, did not send her children to public schools, and never served on a public board of education. With an evenly divided Senate in the first half of the Biden presidency, Vice President Kamala Harris was called upon to cast a record number of tie-breaking votes, including voting to pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, COVID economic relief in 2021, and numerous votes to confirm President Biden’s appointments.
Beyond their few formal powers, vice presidents are nevertheless important in American politics. They are often chosen by presidential candidates to “balance the ticket” either geographically or politically. In 1960, Massachusetts liberal John F. Kennedy needed someone like Texan Lyndon Johnson to help him win the presidency. In 2012, Mitt Romney—who had expressed pro-choice values and had pushed RomneyCare through in Massachusetts—needed someone with strong conservative credentials like Paul Ryan from Wisconsin. In 2016, the irreligious and by all accounts debauched New Yorker Donald Trump needed someone pious and influential with white Christians like Mike Pence from Indiana. Once in office, vice presidents are used by presidents in many ways. They might be relied upon for political advice. They might be put in charge of special initiatives. They often represent the president at ceremonies and functions domestically and around the world.
If the president resigns or dies in office, they are succeeded by the vice president. In 1841 William Henry Harrison died thirty-one days into his first term, and John Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency. Tyler asserted himself as president—not acting president—and established the precedent that when a Vice President becomes President, he does so fully and without qualification. Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In 1974 Gerald Ford became president when Richard Nixon resigned due to his role in the Watergate scandal. When a sitting vice president becomes president, they nominate someone to be vice president, and according to the Twenty-fifth Amendment, that nominee needs majority approval from both the House and the Senate.
The Twenty-fifth Amendment also has two provisions that deal with presidential incapacity. First, the president can inform the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House that they are unable to fulfill the powers and duties of the office. When this occurs, the vice president becomes Acting President until the president informs Congress that they are ready to resume the office. In 1985, this provision was used when Ronald Reagan had a colonoscopy, and George H. W. Bush became Acting President. Twice for the same reason, President George W. Bush temporarily transferred authority to Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 and in 2007. In an additional section of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, the vice president and a cabinet majority can inform the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House that the president is unable to fulfill the powers and duties of the office, and then the vice president would become the Acting President. This has never been done, but there were persistent rumors of it being contemplated during the Trump administration. (2)
Presidential succession issues beyond Twenty-fifth Amendment provisions are covered by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which has been amended several times since then. This law spells out the succession order if the president and vice president are both killed or otherwise incapacitated. Any person occupying one of these positions who does not meet the eligibility requirements to become president would be skipped. Here is the succession order after the vice president:
|1. Speaker of the House||10. Secretary of Labor|
|2. President pro Tempore of the Senate||11. Secretary of Health and Human Services|
|3. Secretary of State||12. Secretary of Housing and Urban Dev|
|4. Secretary of the Treasury||13. Secretary of Transportation|
|5. Secretary of Defense||14. Secretary of Energy|
|6. Attorney General||15. Secretary of Education|
|7. Secretary of the Interior||16. Secretary of Veterans Affairs|
|8. Secretary of Agriculture||17. Secretary of Homeland Security|
|9. Secretary of Commerce|
There has been a long cautionary practice that ensures that someone on the succession list is safe in case some catastrophe takes out most or all of the top executive branch officials. The person identified as the designated survivor does not attend major events like the President’s State of the Union Address at which many or all of the others on the list attend.
- George Mason, Objections to the Constitution. In the Virginia Journaland the Alexandria Advertiser. November 19, 1787. Library of Virginia.
- Maureen Groppe, “What to Know About the 25thAmendment: It’s Never Been Used, But Ex-FBI Head Says Officials Thought About It,” USA Today. February 4, 2019.