One of the more interesting, and potentially frightening, moments in last night's Vice Presidential debate came when Gov. Palin responded to a question about the power of the Vice Presidency and its limits. She said: "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the Vice President if that Vice President so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure we are supportive of the President's policies..."
Sen. Biden countered forcefully that Dick Cheney, who has espoused this view of expanded Vice Presidential powers, has been "the most dangerous Vice President" in American history.
The Constitution says very little about the office of the Vice President. He or she receives and announces to the Senate the votes of the electoral college (Article II, section 1, paragraph 3; 12th amendment); he or she has a tie-breaking vote in the Senate (Article I, section 3, paragraph 4); he or she assumes the Presidency should the President be removed from office, die, resign, or be unable to fulfill his duties (Article II, section 1, paragraph 6).
The confusion comes from the fact that the V.P., as President of the Senate, has duties both under Article I of the Constitution (covering the legislative branch) and under Article II (covering the executive branch).
The Framers of the Constitution did see this as a potential problem, and some delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted the Senate to elect one of its own members as a presiding officer. Alexander Hamilton (Federalist no. 68) justified placing the V.P. in the position of President of the Senate like this: "[T]o secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the president [of the Senate] should have only a casting vote [i.e., a tie-breaking vote]. And to take the senator of any state from his seat as senator, to place him in that of president of the senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the state from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote."
The problem was logistical. If, for example, a Senator from New York is chosen by his peers as President of the Senate, his vote becomes contingent (exercised only in the event of a tie) rather than constant (exercised in all circumstances). Someone needed to have a tie-breaking vote, so the Framers gave it to the Vice President. But the Constitution is clear: the Vice President's only legislative function is the casting of a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
The more important Constitutional principle is that of "separation of powers"—the clear constitutional demarcation between the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Of the separation of powers, James Madison, in Federalist no. 47, says: "No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty..." And he continues: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, or a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
During the debates on the Constitution in 1787, George Mason called the Vice Presidency "a dangerous and useless office." What we have seen over the past eight years, under Bush and Cheney, has been a dangerous trend toward the accumulation of powers. Gov. Palin would like to continue that dangerous trend, one that undermines the constitutional foundations of our liberty.
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