In media about politics, the vice presidency is often grounds for humor. “Angelica, tell my wife, John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway,” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.” “Vice president is a nothing job,” from “Vice,” a film about Vice President Dick Cheney. And of course, there is “did the president call?” from “Veep,” a show formed around Julia Louis-Dreyfus satirizing — and insulting — the vice presidency.
Outside of movies and television shows, it’s no secret that the vice president lacks institutional power. Because of that, vice presidents throughout history have often been either ignored or hapless. When he was vice president, Harry Truman was famously left out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s major decisions. When a reporter asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower if he had ever implemented an idea of then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s, Eisenhower responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
As for hapless vice presidents, Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled the word “potato,” and Vice President Richard M. Johnson believed that Earth was hollow. In fact, President Martin Van Buren, who served with Johnson, thought the office so unimportant that he decided to campaign for reelection with no running mate at all.
Until the 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there was no way to fill a vice presidential vacancy. If a president or vice president died in office, there simply was not a vice president at all until the next election — something that happened 16 separate times. In other words, the office is so insignificant that the Founding Fathers neglected to include another method of filling it, and no one thought to change that for 180 years.
The Washington Post even published a delightful assortment of quotes disparaging the vice presidency. (Most of the quotes are from vice presidents themselves.)
Incumbent Vice President Kamala Harris is presently more unpopular than even President Joe Biden — who is historically unpopular (although he is making a comeback). She has been tasked with leading the Biden administration’s response to immigration, an issue that has repeatedly drawn the ire of conservative voters. As vice president, Harris has virtually no power to bring about substantive immigration reform. She can’t sign executive orders, nor does she have authority over U.S. immigration officials, who fall under Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security. With immigration reform unlikely to pass through Congress, it seems Harris was set up to fail.
Beyond immigration, Harris’s official biography has a total of one paragraph about her time and accomplishments as vice president. She recently made headlines for attending the launch of the Artemis 1, an unmanned rocket headed for the moon. The launch was canceled.
Expanding, or at least better defining, the vice president’s constitutional role would require amendments, which in today’s climate are quite difficult to pass. And even then, expanding the role of vice president could take away authority from the president. However, there is another, simpler, constitutionally allowed option. Make the vice president a Cabinet secretary. Give them substantive influence over their preferred realm of policy by handing over the keys to an executive department.
The vice president is supposed to be the second most influential figure in the American government. More importantly, they need to be ready to take on the presidency, should they need to. Having the vice president be more directly involved in policy-making and administration would better prepare them to actually be president.
Currently, the vice president’s influence comes from her role as an advisor to the president. Few advisors launch successful presidential campaigns. A Cabinet post, though, could boost presidential preparedness. Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term and briefly during his second term, after being criticized for a lack of foreign policy experience. Experts say that the opportunities for major achievements available to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — a top contender for the 2024 presidential nomination — would bolster another campaign.
For the vice president specifically, having to balance the concrete, administrative duties of a Cabinet secretary with the ceremonial and advisory roles of the vice president would best prepare them for the important, hectic and often ceremonial (they pardon the turkeys) nature of the presidency.
In other democracies, it is not uncommon for the head of government’s main deputy to run the equivalent of a cabinet department. Robert Habeck, the vice chancellor of Germany, concurrently serves as the minister for economic affairs and climate action; Thérèse Coffey, the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, also serves as secretary of state for health and social care; Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister of Canada, is minister of finance. The number two in all three countries has few official responsibilities, but instead of being relegated to a mainly ceremonial role, they are also given a role of substance.
The idea isn’t even terribly far outside mainstream U.S. politics. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had lawyers investigate whether he could appoint rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as both vice president and secretary of the treasury.
The problem isn’t just that the vice president has nothing to do, though. Presidential advisors are important, and the vice president is often considered a top advisor. The problem is that the power of the vice president can change dramatically every four years because the vice president’s role is largely determined by the relationship they have with the top of the ticket.
In the past, strictly defining the responsibilities of the vice president would have restricted those who seek too much responsibility. Vice President Dick Cheney is widely considered the most powerful vice president in American history. His influence was a key factor in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, and he held great influence over Supreme Court nominations, federal budget proposals, tax policies and energy regulations.
Cheney was able to wield so much power because President George W. Bush allowed it, and Bush was able to allow it because the vice president’s role is so poorly defined. If Cheney had been made secretary of defense, he would have been able to directly influence an area of policy he cared about. At the same time, he would have been more confined to defense-related issues — the secretary of defense doesn’t screen Supreme Court nominees, for instance.
The vice president is one particularly bad bicycle accident away from becoming the most powerful person in the world. That is more than enough uncertainty for America’s second-highest political official. The vice president needs a stable role, one that offers critical experience and an abundance of opportunities to influence practical policy. Each of the 15 executive departments offers just that.
Quin Zapoli is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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