A Big Time tiebreaker

The founders of the US Constitution really did not think through the vice presidency very well. Originally, they let it be filled by the candidate who came in second in electoral votes, which created two problems that they did not anticipate: It could mean a president and VP of different parties, and it could mean a tie vote for president if a party failed to have one of its electors abstain. (The latter led to an election crisis in 1800-01 that nearly destroyed the young republic.) These two problems were fixed by a subsequent constitutional amendment. But left unfixed today is another anomalous provision: that which effectively gives the executive branch two votes in the case of a tie in the Senate–one to break the tie, and then a second if the bill reaches the President’s desk.

The only constitutional role of the vice presidency, aside from filling a vacancy in the presidency, is to cast votes in the Senate in case of a tie. I must confess that I have never understood the rationale for this provision (perhaps it is buried deep within the Federalist Papers). Since political parties arose to contest presidential elections with executive tickets, the result has been, in effect, to give the president a second vote on legislation. The president already has a vote–in the form of signing or vetoing a bill–on every piece of legislation. The tiebreaker provision gives him, through the vice presideny, a vote to send to his desk something that otherwise would have been defeted. A tie is a defeat, and what is so special about a tie vote–as opposed to, say, a two-vote defeat of a bill–that in this one case we give the executive the right to decide the matter?

Before the rise of partisan tickets, this was not an issue, as the VP would be, on average, as likely to oppose as support the president. But the tie-breaking provision should not have remained in the Constitution once the document was amended to take account of partisan tickets.

Really, there is no good constitutional reason to have the Vice President interrupt his visit of hope and help to the victims of the calamity in the Himalayas to rush home just to cast a vote to rescue the president from the potential calamity of an embarrassing defeat.

The tie-breaker vote should be taken away from the vice presidency. This was the 243d time in US history that a VP has cast a vote in the Senate. None of these men was ever elected to cast a legislative vote, yet this archaic provision persists.

Actually, I would prefer to abolish the vice presidency altogether–or perhaps recognize the de facto Big Time role that the current occupant of the office has played and convert it into a prime minister-like office instead.


(And, yes, I felt the same way about Al Gore’s tiebreaking votes, but I did not have a blog then!)

8 thoughts on “A Big Time tiebreaker

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  2. The Senate is hideously malapportioned, so giving the executive branch an extra vote there – to a small degree – does restore some power to America’s population majority. (yep, I know that this administration didn’t win a plurality anyway, but that’s another problem).

  3. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  4. Nebraska has a lieutenant-governor with a tie breaking vote in the unicameral legislature. It would be interesting to know how many of the several United States have lieutenant-governors with either or both of succession rights and a tie breaking vote.

  5. An Australian journalist who doesn’t quite get this whole “Westminster System” deal, and/or who nodded off in Politics 101 when the names “Frank Forde” https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Forde#Political_career and “Black Jack McEwen” https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McEwen#Political_career were mentioned:
    “This man is one heartbeat away from the top job. Will voters rejoyce? He was elected to lead the Nationals in a late-night vote. This is how Barnaby became the nation’s second-most powerful MP.”
    The New Daily (Friday, 12 February 2016). URL: http://www.thenewdaily.com.au/news/2016/02/11/top-stories-friday-february-12/
    For outsiders: Barnaby Joyce has been elected as the National Party leader, making him Deputy Prime Minister. (His predecessor, Warren Truss, will be remembered by history for getting fictitiously punched in a Sydney “bar” – ie, pub – by Sawyer in “Lost”: http://www.lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Warren_Truss). However, should Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull go under a bus, the next Prime Minister (in the long term) will not be Barnaby Joyce. It may not even be Julie Bishop, the Liberals’ Deputy Leader, or Scott Morrison, the Liberal Treasurer (even though in Australia the Treasurer is traditionally seen as the number #2 player behind the Prime Minister). It will be open to the party room and there could very well be some John Gorton-like surprise. Barnaby no more gets to succeed to the Prime Ministership of Australia than the Turkish Cypriot Vice-President would get to succeed to the presidency of Cyprus.

  6. (18 July 2016) Here’s my theory: that by picking a “boring,” conservative, establishment Republican like Mike Pence as his vice-presidential running mate, Donald Trump has made a very (electorally) smart move. Not because it will not bring any Democrats into the Republican column, or sway [m]any wavering lodges: rather, what Pence does bring to the 2016 GOP ticket is a face-saving way for the “#NeverTrump” crowd to return to the party fold in November and vote the party ticket, no doubt “holding their noses.”
    A whole swag of NATIONAL REVIEW columnists can now say “The situation has changed. I’m not voting for Trump; I’m voting for Mike Pence — and, of course, keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House.” They can further bolster this by saying that, if the GOP wins, Trump will no doubt grab all the glamorous, ceremonial parts of the presidential role but leave the actual governing to his vice-president, like Bush II with Dick Cheney: Pence can run the federal government in the same uneventful, predictable way that he’s run Indiana. Also, if (as the wags have joked) Trump gets bored 18 months into the job and quits to become president of some much younger Eastern European nation instead, Pence is there to step up. For possibly the first time in 240 years, a president leaving office would mean less constitutional disruption than a president staying in office…
    I still think Clinton will win but I now predict that the absolute number of votes for the GOP ticket will be higher than it would have been with a different Veep nominee.

    • ‘… The US government doesn’t think of the commander-in-chief as a single person – instead, it thinks of what is known as a “Office of the Presidency,” a living, breathing entity larger than any one person. Nearly every aspect of continuity planning examines the questions of presidential succession through the lens of nuclear weapons: who has moment-to-moment control of the world-ending arsenal of 400 ballistic missiles, 14 missile submarines, and fleets of bombers, all ready to launch on a moment’s notice. The extensive, expensive system of military and communications apparatus that surrounds the presidency – what’s known as the National Command Authorities – is designed to ensure that someone, somewhere is always in charge of those weapons. The first nuclear ballistic missiles are set to leave their silos just four minutes after a verified presidential launch order, so there’s no time to be hunting for the next president…”
      – Garrett M Graff, “The Doomsday Plan: How the Military Responds When the President Can’t Fulfill His Duties – In the event that Donald Trump can’t do his job, a long and complex set of procedures begin to unravel,” Esquire (5 October 2020), https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a34273327/trump-covid-25th-amendment-process-explained/
      In other words, the Body Natural vs the Body Politic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King%27s_Two_Bodies

      • Would you mind sharing that with at least one of the two major parties? They seem to think “Commander in Chief” is not only a separate office held by the president, but it is a civil and military office with broad and unquestionable authority over all Americans and all American foreign policy.

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