Sarah Palin as President of the Senate

In Thursday night’s debate Sarah Palin exhibited why many conservatives believe she is the future of the Conservative movement and why she is likely to be the first woman President of the United States after the 2012 elections.  There were many noteworthy exchanges during the debate but to me, the most important one, since it relates to Palin’s function if she is elected Vice President, was the one concerning the duties of that office.

The moderator, Gwen Ifill asked,

“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 it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?”

The question itself shows both a partisan bias and a deficiency in knowledge of the Constitution.  It implies that Vice President Cheney engaged in extra-constitutional activities in his relationship with the Senate and questions whether Palin intends to do likewise.

Governor Palin: “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, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation….”

Senator Biden’s response: “Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.”

“And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.”

“The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress….”

The fact is; the office of Vice President was more closely associated with the Legislative Branch than the Executive Branch from 1788 until after the Second World War.  Harry Truman was forced to take on the duties of President in a time of war, due to the death of Franklin Roosevelt, with no experience and little knowledge of important decisions made during the war, including the existence of the Atom Bomb. Following that experience the office of Vice President became more involved in the workings of the Executive Branch.

The first Vice President to have an office in the White House was Walter Mondale, Vice President to Jimmy Carter.

Even though Joe Biden has, on at least six occasions, taken an oath to “defend and protect” the Constitution of the United States, it is apparent from his response that he has little knowledge of what it contains.  He should know that Article I deals with the duties of the Legislative Branch, not the Executive Branch.  Those are found in Article II.

Biden continues, “The idea he’s part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.”

It is this statement by Biden that is really bizarre.  The idea that the office of Vice President is a part of the Legislative Branch was invented by the framers of the Constitution, not Vice President Cheney. Article I assigns to the Vice President the legislative duty of presiding over the Senate.

“The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

“The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.”  ~Article I, Section 3, U.S. Constitution

The question then becomes; what is meant by the term “President of the Senate?”  The meaning was so obvious to the Framers they did not bother to define it further.  However, the office of President of the Senate has been so neglected by its occupants and its meaning so changed by custom over the past two hundred years that its constitutional intent has been lost.  Today the office of Vice President is looked upon by its occupants mostly as a possible stepping-stone to the Presidency.  That was not the intent of the Framers.

The universal understanding of the term “President of the Senate” is further demonstrated in the fact that no elaboration on its meaning is found in the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers or in other popular writings of the founding era.  To understand the proper role of the Senate President we are forced to go to the Constitution itself and to how the role was understood by those who filled it in the early days of the Republic.

That the office was considered important by the Framers is shown in the fact that it is the only duty assigned to the Vice President by the Constitution.  Serving as President of the Senate is not just a ceremonial honor bestowed on the Vice President; it is his or her primary duty.  To understand what those duties entail, a good place to start is by looking at the duties of its counterpart in the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House. It is unreasonable to believe the Framers would stipulate an executive officer for the House and not designate a similar position for the Senate. “Majority Leader” is not a constitutional office.

The House has only one officer required by the Constitution.  That officer is the Speaker and is to be chosen by whatever manner the House deems fitting.  The House is given the authority to add other officers and to choose them, as they consider desirable.  The Senate has two officers mandated by the Constitution, the President and the President pro Tempore.  It is permitted to elect its President pro Tempore and any other officers it thinks necessary or desirable according to its own judgment.

The President of the Senate, however, is elected by the majority vote of all the electors of the fifty states and is the only nationally elected officer in the Legislative Branch, a further indication of its importance.  This is fitting since the Senate has “advice and consent” powers over treaties, Judges, Supreme Court Justices, Ambassadors and other officers appointed by the President.  Since all these Presidential actions are national in scope it is proper that the executive officer of the Senate be elected nationally.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word “president” as the “chief executive officer of the United States or the chief executive officer of an organization or corporation.”  The word, whether used in a political sense or a non-political sense, always carries with it the connotation of executive authority.  To attempt to separate executive authority from the term President of the Senate is an unwarranted manipulation of the English language.

This being the case, how then did the office of Vice President become relegated to such an unimportant role in our government as it has today?  To understand this we have to look at the early history of our nation.

John Adams was a prominent revolutionary in the years leading up to the revolution.  He was a strong advocate of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee assigned by the Continental Congress to draft it, although the language was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson.  After the revolution he was assigned to a number of diplomatic positions under the Federation and worked closely with Jefferson as envoys to a number of European Countries.

When the new government was formed under the Constitution he ran against George Washington for the office of President and was soundly defeated.  Under the original Constitution, having received the second highest number of votes, he became Vice President.

Adams was a super patriot and a competent Ambassador.  However, as Vice President and later as President, flaws in his temperament prevented him from becoming great in those positions.  He took seriously his duties as President of the Senate and became known for his lectures to the Senate on policy and procedural matters.  While he did not have a vote except as a “tie breaker” he did attempt to influence legislation.

His overbearing and tyrannical manner as President of the Senate brought on a threatened revolt by the Senators near the end of his first term.  Hoping to become President after George Washington left office he moderated his interactions with the Senate during his second term in order not to further alienate his political supporters.

In spite of his leadership role in the revolution, he was an admirer of the English style of government and its customs of nobility.  During his first term as Vice President he became embroiled in a month long controversy over what the proper address should be for the President when he visited the Senate.  He preferred the titles of “His Majesty the President” or “His High Mightiness”.  The more simple title of “President of the United States” eventually won out.

Further evidence of his elitist nature, tyrannical personality and intolerance of opposing opinions came up during his term as President when he signed into law the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writings” against the government or its officials. The Act expired at the end of his term in 1801 and Thomas Jefferson, his successor, granted a full pardon to those convicted under this unconstitutional law.

The idea of “factions” or political parties was anathema to the founding fathers.  Their failure to foresee the inevitable rise of political parties as the most practical way of selecting candidates for President and making constitutional provisions for their functions became one of the few weaknesses of the Constitution.  The twelfth Amendment corrected the problem of having the President and Vice President from opposing parties, as was the case with Adams and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.  Otherwise, the proper role of political parties was left undefined.

The animosity between Adams, a Federalist, and Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican was so great that Jefferson spent the four years of his term as Adam’s V.P. at home in Monticello writing a handbook on Senate procedures rather than performing his duties as President of the Senate.  Since then the role of President of the Senate has been more or less left up to the individual Vice President with the willing acquiescence of the Senate.  John C. Calhoun, elected Vice President to John Quincy Adams in 1824 and re-elected as Vice President to Andrew Jackson in 1828, was the only other V.P. to take his duties as Senate President seriously.

If Sarah Palin is elected to the office of Vice President and wishes to take on the task of Senate President she should have the support of every patriotic American.  The current role of “Majority Leader” is clearly unconstitutional and is a usurpation of the constitutional powers of the President of the Senate as intended by the Founding Fathers.

The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader have acquired powers over time that equal or exceeds the powers of the Executive Branch.  Both have assumed dictatorial authority over legislation to be considered by either house of Congress.  Neither position is accountable to the voters other than those in their respective districts or states although their actions affect the lives and well-being of every American.  Any reforms a Vice President Palin can bring to this unhealthy situation would be welcome.

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5 responses to “Sarah Palin as President of the Senate

  1. Bravo to you for a superb lesson in American political history. I’ve read the Basic Law several times and did not make the connection of the VP being dual hatted as part of the executive AND the legislative branches. The Framers were geniuses.

    If Mrs Palin is granted the popular go ahead to be our next Vice President, I believe she will do an excellent job – and I believe she already understands what the Framers had in mind when they structured our government.

    It is bracing to think of Sarah Palin as chief executive. It is even more fascinating to think about her running against Hiliary R. Clinton!

    Steve Myers in Bedford, PA

  2. Excellent explanation of the Vice President`s role. Thank you.

    I will disagree with the notion that political parties are a weakness of the Constitution. At this point in our history, partisan bickering frustrates the effectiveness of legislative process to address critical matters to the point of virtual paralysis. Constitutional support for such behavior would only make it worse.

    On the contrary, a weakness of the Constitution is the absence of a requirement that all Congressional legislation regarding a particular subject to be voted as a separate bill. Such requirement is the foundation of New England Town Meetings. Such a Constitutional requirement on Congress would clearly demonstrate to the people, the performance of their respective members of Congress regarding a particular matter which is not even a remote possibility today.

    Instead of legitimizing political parties, partisan bickering may be mitigated by requiring Congress to desegregate seating by party and be in session only when a quorum is present. This would require Congress to at least listen to the debate, which does not happen today, and facilitate an exchange ideas with others by proximity.

  3. Fenton

    Thanks for the kind words. You misread my comment on constitutional weakness. I did not say “Political Parties are a weakness of the Constitution.” The fact that the Constitution did not foresee their rise and provide a means for limiting the abuses of their influence over other legitimate functions of government is the weakness.

    The problem we have today is that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid exercise dictatorial control over what legislation the Congress is allowed to consider and vote on. Party leaders have usurped the constitutional functions of both the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate using those positions to further party agendas rather than for the good of the country.

    Their attitude, and unfortunately the attitude of too many voters is, “to hell with the country, what’s in it for me?”

  4. Thank you for the clarification. I did indeed misread the context of your remarks.

    And most assuredly, the leadership has promoted their intended role of keeping order and being fair, to being partisan bullies to the minority, and actually suppressing debate and voting on matters of great importance to the people.

    Unfortunately, these partisans do not suffer at the ballot box for their misdeeds, because as you stated, a vast number of voters see their role in choosing their political leaders mainly based on the level of promised pandering to their needs rather than what is good for the country.

    Our freedoms, rights and quality of life have spoiled many into complacency. My hope is that someday this amorphous body of voters representing the selfish sleeping giant will awaken to reality and adopt a genuine commitment to country before it is too late to save what the people of this country have enjoyed for over 200 years.

  5. Perhaps a copy of this column should be sent to Chris Mathews of MSNBC as he seems to be citing Joe Biden’s reply as undisputable gospel truth.