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Palin's "Role of the Vice President" Gaffe: An Historical Perspective

11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Chris Rodda Senior Research Director, Military Religious Freedom Foundation; Author, 'Liars For Jesus'

The night of the vice presidential debate, I started writing a piece about Sarah Palin's utter cluelessness about the authority given to the vice president by the Constitution, but was forced to put it aside because other things came up that I had to deal with first. By the time I had a chance to get back to the piece, the second presidential debate had already taken place, so writing about the past week's vice presidential debate seemed a bit mistimed, and I didn't bother to finish it. The substantiation of Palin's abuse of authority as governor of Alaska, however, made her inflated notion of the authority she would have as vice president seem quite pertinent to the issue of her likelihood to abuse the authority of that office. Given Palin's ignorance of the limits of the vice president's authority, and her obvious lack of ethics in exercising the authority she has as a governor, I decided to finish what I started writing about her statements in the debate.

Sarah Palin's bizarre and ignorant statements about the role and authority of the vice president came in answer to moderator Gwen Ifill's questions about Palin's July comment that someone would have to explain to her exactly what it is the vice president does every day, and whether or not she agreed with Dick Cheney that the vice president was part of the legislative rather than the executive branch of the government. Palin's answers to these questions showed that she just plain doesn't know what the Constitution says about the office she's running for.

Responding to the question about her comment back in July that she doesn't know what the vice president does every day, Palin answered:

"Of course we know what a vice president does, and that's not only preside over the Senate, and we'll take that position very seriously, also, I'm thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate...."

What on earth was this woman talking about? What is this "bit more authority given to the vice president" that she's "thankful that the Constitution would allow?" The only actual legislative authority given by the Constitution to the vice president, as Joe Biden pointed out in his response to Palin's statement, is to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate in the event of a tied vote.

In a follow-up question, Ifill asked Palin:

"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 is, it is also a member of the legislative branch?"

Palin's answer, (which somehow ended with a completely off-topic statement about her executive experience as a governor, mayor, and oil and gas regulator), began:

"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..."

Since Palin attributed this fanciful notion of a "flexibility" in the Constitution giving the vice president some sort of legislative authority if they "so chose to exert it in working with the Senate" to the wisdom of the founding fathers, here's a little history lesson for her, starting with the role in the Senate of our country's very first vice president, John Adams.

Upon taking office as vice president, John Adams, as dictated by the Constitution, immediately assumed his position as president of the Senate, showing up every day to preside over that body. But Adams, who had no executive experience but plenty of legislative experience, was inclined, as president of this new legislative body, to be actively involved in its debates. As Adams himself put it, he was "more accustomed to take a share in their debates, than to preside in their deliberations."

At the beginning, some participation by Adams would probably have been condoned, and even welcomed, by the senators had Adams not been such a control freak and generally annoying guy, given to making long speeches and obsessing over matters that the majority of the senators thought were a waste of valuable time, such as a month long debate over the title by which the president of the United States should be addressed. Adams liked "His High Mightiness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties," which led to jokes behind the his back, with senators dubbing him the "Duke of Braintree" and "His Rotundity." Far more serious than Adams being annoying and disruptive, however, was the fact that, as distinct political parties began to emerge during the first congress, the senators saw the problem of the vice president not being objective in his role as Senate president, but using his position to add a voice for his party in their debates. All of this eventually led the Senate to basically tell Adams to just sit there and keep his mouth shut except on procedural items and tie-breaking votes.

So, far from Sarah Palin's notion that the vice president has some sort of constitutionally granted legislative authority if they "so chose to exert it in working with the Senate," our country's very first senators made it clear that it wasn't the vice president who had authority over the Senate, but the Senate that had the power to confine the vice president to their extremely limited constitutional role.

Another issue that arose during Adams's tenure as vice president was one related to the separation of powers, specifically Adams's signing of Senate documents as "John Adams, Vice President of the United States." Even though the vice president has no actual executive authority under the Constitution, many of the senators were concerned that the use of this executive title when certifying legislation and signing other Senate documents blurred the separation between the executive and legislative branches of the government.

This is how William Maclay, a senator from Pennsylvania in the first Congress, explained the issue in his journal, paraphrasing one of his own statements from the debate, in which he spoke for the majority of the senators:

"I rose. Said the very term Vice-President carried on the face of it the idea of holding the place of the President in his absence; that every act done by the Vice-President as such implied that when so acting he held the place of the President. In this point of view nothing could be more improper than the Vice-President signing an address to the President. It was like a man signing an address to himself. That the business of the Vice-President was when he acted exactly the same with that of President, and could not mix itself with us as a Senate."

I quote this particular passage from William Maclay's journal not only because it succinctly describes the Senate's concern over the particular issue of how the vice president, in his capacity as president of the Senate, signed legislative documents, but because it shows that our first Senate did view the vice president, when acting under the title of "Vice President," as being part of the executive branch.

Now, it is true that our early vice presidents did consider their role to be primarily legislative rather than executive, but this is because their job of presiding over the Senate was what they actually did day to day. It wasn't until the twentieth century that vice presidents began to sit in on cabinet meetings or to be assigned any real executive duties by the president. The degree to which a vice president acted in an executive capacity, however, depended entirely upon the relationship of the particular president and vice president. What most people don't realize is that the first president to actually choose their running mate was Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was running for re-election in 1940 and chose Henry Wallace. Prior to this, the vice presidential candidate was nominated by their party in much the same way that the presidential candidate was nominated. At first, Roosevelt gave Wallace quite a bit of executive responsibility, but when the two began to drift apart politically, Roosevelt stripped Wallace of all the authority he had been given. Clearly, while acting primarily as an agent of the president, as almost all vice presidents have since, Wallace was part of the executive branch.

During his first two terms, Roosevelt had also invited John Nance Garner, his vice president from 1933 to 1941, to attend cabinet meetings. This, however, did not give the vice president any more actual power, and when Roosevelt and Garner began to disagree on important issues during their second term, eventually becoming bitter political enemies, Garner made his infamous statement that the office of vice president wasn't "worth a pitcher of warm piss." Garner was not the first or the only vice president, or proposed nominee for the office, to voice their opinion on the office's lack of power or influence. When the Whig Party was looking for a running mate for Zachary Taylor in 1848, Daniel Webster, then a Senator from Massachusetts, was approached by the party. Webster turned down their offer, reportedly saying, "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead."

Even our first vice president, whose apparent wishful thinking and ego led him to initially view his position in the new government as one of great authority, eventually conceded that this was simply not the case. It's interesting to look at how Adams's opinion changed over the course of his first four years in the office.

In a May 1789 letter to Benjamin Lincoln regarding a disagreement with Massachusetts Governor John Hancock over the supremacy of the federal government over the state governments, Adams called the vice president the "head of the Legislature." He even went as far as saying that the vice president was "of equal rank" to the president, an interpretation of the office that is so bizarre that the words "of equal rank" and "equals" are almost edited out of the quote because they make it look like Adams didn't understand the Constitution. Here's the entire quote, weird part and all:

"The Constitution has instituted two great offices, of equal rank, and the Nation at large, in pursuance of it, has created two officers, one, who is the first of the two equals, is placed at the head of the Executive; the other, at the head of the Legislature."

In 1793, after the Senate had silenced Adams in their debates, he wrote to Abigail that the vice presidency was "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Another of our country's founders to consider the office of vice president to be legislative rather than executive was the second man to hold the office, Thomas Jefferson, who also described the office as "honorable and easy." While Adams was unwillingly edged out of any involvement in the executive decisions of Washington administration, Jefferson wanted no part of that branch of the government. Jefferson, of course, was elected under the original election procedure where the candidate with the second highest number of votes became vice president, so he ended up as vice president to Adams, a member of the opposing party. Jefferson took the constitutional role of the vice president to the extreme, writing to Elbridge Gerry shortly after taking office that he not only wouldn't, but couldn't, be involved in executive decisions, even if asked.

"Those who may endeavor to separate us, are probably excited by the fear that I might have influence on the executive councils; but when they shall know that I consider my office as constitutionally confined to legislative functions, and that I could not take any part whatever in executive consultations, even were it proposed, their fears may perhaps subside, & their object be found not worth a machination."

It's pretty clear that Jefferson's statement that the Constitution would actually prohibit the vice president from advising the president if asked wasn't his real opinion, but merely what he wanted those in the faction of Adams's party that hadn't supported Adams to think was his opinion. Gerry was concerned that this faction, led by Alexander Hamilton, would be so fearful of Jefferson influencing Adams that they might attempt to cook up some plan to drive a wedge between the two.

Of course, Jefferson, who really didn't have any involvement in the executive branch, using the excuse that the Constitution confined him to the legislative branch to avoid unnecessary partisan trouble in no way validates Dick Cheney's use of this same excuse to avoid inspections of his clearly executive office.

It would be preposterous to think that our country's first senators, who considered the mere signing of documents by John Adams with his title of "Vice President" to carry the implications of an executive act, wouldn't have considered our modern-day vice presidents, whose primary role has become carrying out executive assignments and acting as an agent of the president, to be part of the executive branch of the government.

While Joe Biden, responding to Sarah Palin's agreement with Dick Cheney that he is member of the legislative branch, was a little off in saying that Cheney invented the notion that the vice president is part of the legislative branch, I certainly think that William Maclay and the rest of the founders would agree with Biden that Cheney "has been the the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history" and that he's using the legislative branch excuse "to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive."

I don't know what they'd make of Sarah Palin's answer. I know I certainly don't.

"Yeah, so I do agree with [Cheney] 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."

Did she really begin by saying that she agreed with Cheney that the vice president is part of the legislative branch, and then tout her extensive executive experience and how as vice president she'll put that experience to use in the White House, which is ... ummm ... the executive branch?