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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Constitutional Queries about the VP Debate

Hundreds of readers have written us asking why we didn’t point out Joe Biden’s confusion of Articles I and II of the Constitution during his debate with Gov. Sarah Palin on Oct. 2. We should have. While his rambling response was generally correct in describing the constitutional role of the vice president, he did make a small error. And in the interest of clearing up previous debate matters before tonight’s final face-off between John McCain and Barack Obama, we’ll get this out of the way now.

This is what Biden said:

Biden: 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. … 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.

Oops. Article I actually addresses the legislative branch, while Article II covers the executive branch. But Biden is right that the sole responsibility prescribed to the vice president in the Constitution is contained in Article I. It says that the v.p. also serves as president of the Senate, and has a vote in that body — but only to break a tie. That has happened just 242 times since 1789.

This slim portfolio led an earlier inhabitant of the office, John Nance Garner, to remark that the position was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Well, there is that whole bit in the 25th Amendment about taking the president’s place if he/she dies, resigns or becomes incapacitated, but one can’t hang around for four years thinking those ghoulish thoughts, can one? Besides, Garner was v.p. from 1933 to 1941; the 25th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1967.

Vice presidents have taken on different responsibilities, including, as Biden put it, “support[ing] the president … giv[ing] his or her best judgment.” But these are informal roles, not ones spelled out in the Constitution, and they vary greatly depending on who’s occupying the White House.