Does America need a vice president?
Michael Roston
Published: Wednesday June 27, 2007
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While Democratic Members of Congress prepared to cut the budget of Vice President Dick Cheney for claiming that his office was not part of the executive branch, some critics of the Bush administration have contemplated a more radical response: permanently abolishing the Office of the Vice President within the American system of government.

One law professor advanced the idea at a popular blog written by scholars of the US Constitution.

The vagueness in America's founding documents about the role of the Vice Presidency was called a "deficiency in our Constitution, for which the most obvious remedy is abolishing an office that for much of our history has been useless (assuming that the office was filled at all, as it has not been for a total of approximately 45 years) and now has emerged as a true menace to the republic, both literally and figuratively," wrote Sandy Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin at who blogs at Balkinization.

Another blogger anonymously spoke more stridently about the idea of scrapping the Office of the Vice President.

"In any case after these two are gone the problem will still remain: there is no effective legal restraint against a Vice President who abuses his power the way Cheney has....there is nothing in the Constitution that I can find which explicitly prohibits the VP from taking over the fucking government," wrote 'Xan,' who blogs at CorrenteWire. "Why not go all the way and just abolish the fucking office? The VP has no assigned duties, we already established that. Idle hands are the Devilís playground..."

To further consider these proposals, RAW STORY talked with one of the country's rare scholars of the vice presidency as an institution in American government. Joel K. Goldstein is a law professor at Saint Louis University and the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution.

The notion of abolishing the Vice Presidency is not entirely new. In 1803, the Vice Presidency survived an 18-12 vote in the US Senate that moved to eviscerate the institution from the government. But the current motivations for closing up the nation's number two elected office differ greatly from earlier eras.

"If you had told any Vice President before Walter Mondale [Vice President in Jimmy Carter's administration] that in the year 2007, one of the burning issues people would be talking about is whether the Vice President is too powerful, or is the Vice President really running the country, they would say that would never happen," explained Professor Goldstein.

He went on, "In a historical context, the notion that the Vice President has gotten too powerful is totally bizarre. The office was the butt of jokes to the predecessors of the Jay Lenos and Jon Stewarts for generations."

Goldstein's suggestion was confirmed by one earlier advocate of abolishing the vice presidency who focused on how the institution did a disservice to politicians who might otherwise play a more useful role in society.

"The office not only can put undeserving and ill qualified persons in line for the presidency, but wastes the abilities of good politicians for four to eight years, years during which he or she might serve effectively in some other office," wrote Eugene McCarthy, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, in a 1997 edition of the magazine Progressive Populist. "Service in the office may seriously impair the person's chances of being elected, if nominated, either because of failures on the part of his principal, or because of things that he or she did in service of a president."

Some truth to Cheney's claim...in the 19th century

Goldstein went on to explain that the position of Vice President had fundamentally changed in the post-World War Two era. He noted that in the 19th century, there was some credence to the idea that the Vice President did not truly serve as an agent of the executive branch.

"In the 19th century, the office really became entirely legislative, where essentially all they did was preside over the Senate, and they continued to do that in first half of the 20th century," he explained. "Even until Hubert Humphrey [Vice President to Lyndon Johnson], if he wanted to come to the White House, someone had to clear him in. His staff couldn't get in the building."

Such experiences appear to have been routine among Vice Presidents, with John 'Cactus Jack' Garner, Vice President during part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tenure, once stating that the office was not worth "a warm bucket of spit."

But the Vice Presidency underwent a major change during the era of Dwight Eisenhower, when a considerably younger Richard Milhous Nixon became the most prominent Vice President America had ever known.

"Nixon was much more active than any of his predecessors," Goldstein explained. "He traveled to 50 foreign countries, he was an active spokesman for the Administration. He did a lot of partisan party work, he chaired commissions, took on additional ceremonial functions, met with the Cabinet and the National Security Council. He was so much more active and visible than his predecessors that at the point that the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, there was this notion that the Vice President had become part of the executive branch."

But the Vice Presidency now seen under Cheney finds its predicate under Mondale's tenure.

"Mondale said being in the Executive Office Building across the street was like being in Baltimore," Goldstein joked. "He had a White House office, access to the paper flow and the president's schedule, and a weekly private meeting with the President. When there are three major offices in the West Wing, that's saying to the world that you're somebody. If you're one of only 2 or 3 people with a weekly private lunch with the president, that tells the rest of the world that you're got an opportunity to be influential, and if you can walk into meetings whenever you want, it gives a signal that you don't send if you're Hubert Humphrey and President Johnson is making a point of cutting you out of important meetings."

Legal scholar calls sacking VP 'mistaken'

Taking up the question posed earlier about whether the Vice Presidency should be abolished, Goldstein said the idea was 'mistaken.'

"First, the Vice President serves a purpose in having a successor ready, willing, and able to step in. Second, the world has gotten so complicated that there's a virtue in having a second high level person who can shoulder important responsibilities. And third, it's useful to have somebody who is an experienced public figure who can serve as an across the board adviser to the president," he argued. "And so while at least the second or third role is entirely different from what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind...the office has grown in a way where it really does serve a useful role in our system of government."

And, he concluded, abolishing the position might not even be necessary once the Bush-Cheney administration ends.

"To the extent that there are aspects of this vice presidency that people are uncomfortable with right now, one question to add is whether this is a function of a particular president's approach to the office, and his or her leadership style? Is that a function of particular Vice President's approach?" he asked. "And, is it a combination of those two things together?"