The position of the Vice President is limited, to say the least. John Adams, the nation’s first Vice President, lamented the status of the office: “I am nothing, but I may be everything.” The second highest executive officer in the nation, the Vice President is a potential successor to the Office of the Presidency, but it is barely mentioned in Article 2 of the Constitution. Article 2, Section 1 provides that in case the President is removed from office because of death, resignation, or inability to discharge official duties, “the Same shall devolve on the Vice President . . . .”
The principal reference to the office, however, appears in Article 1, Section 3: “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.” Thus the sole constitutional function of the Vice President, which is to preside over the Senate. His chief duty in this capacity, though seldom performed, is to break tie votes and to make parliamentary rulings.
The reasoning behind the creation of the Vice Presidency was less than clear. By constitutional design, the Vice President is something of a hybrid, a denizen of both the legislative and executive branches. The debates in Philadelphia on the nature and purpose of the Vice President reflect the challenges confronting the Framers in the construction of the office. On September 7, Elbridge Gerry opposed the assignment of the Senate duty to the Vice President. He stated: “We might as well put the President himself at the head of the Legislature. The close intimacy that must subsist between the President & the vice-president makes it absolutely improper. He was agst having any vice President.” Edmund Randolph shared Gerry’s protest, as did George Mason, but for a different reason. Mason thought the office of Vice President “an encroachment on the rights of the Senate,” and asserted the need to maintain the separation of powers doctrine that was evolving in the Convention.
In Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton addressed, and attempted to explain away, the objection to making the Vie President as the President of the Senate. He argued, first, that in order to “secure” a “definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the President should have only a casting vote.” Second, to make a particular Senator President of the Senate “would be to exchange, in regard to the State from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote.” Those are not plausible arguments for the invention of the office. In our time, various Senators have assumed the duties of the presiding officer, while casting votes on bills.
There is merit to the theory that the Framers created the Vice Presidency to facilitate the election of a national President, and to provide for a logical successor in the event that President leaves the office, by death, resignation or impeachment. But the electoral explanation for the creation of the office is appealing. The members of the Electoral College feared that electors would favor citizens from their home state for President. Thus the Framers gave the electors two votes, but required that they cast at least one for a citizen of a different state. They probably expected that the electors’ second-choice vote would identify a national consensus President. The second office, they reasoned, would ensure that the electors voted seriously. This theory finds expression in the explanation of Hugh Williamson, a member of the Convention, who said, the office “was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.”