Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Abolish the office of the Vice President

To repeat the worn-out cliché, the Vice President is just a heartbeat away from the Presidency. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at what the American people think of our current Vice President.

According to the New York Times, Vice President Cheney has replaced Dan Quayle as the most unpopular vice president in recent history. Cheney, who never had a job approval rating above 56% polled at 28% in June with 59% disapproving. His favorability polled 13% in May down from a high of 43% just before the 2000 election. To top this off, 54% of Americans and 50% of voters now favor the House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against the Vice President.

This isn’t exactly a man who has the confidence of the American people.

Obviously, the sentiment is to get rid of Cheney but under our system of government that can only be done by impeachment which is sort of like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. Cheney is not the type of leader with the personal decency to step down so where this all is going is anyone’s guess.

However, the Cheney situation does raise an interesting question: Why do we need a Vice President or at least a Vice President with the built-in job security the current office guarantees? Between deaths and successions, this nation has been without a Vice President for 45 years and no seemed to notice or care. Most Western democracies do not have anything comparable to our Vice Presidency. The only official duties of the Vice President are to preside over the Senate, cast the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and otherwise sit around and wait for the President to die. That’s it.

Maybe it is time for a little Constitutional housecleaning.

Here is the argument Professor Sanford Levinson makes in the Boston Globe to amend the Constitution to either abolish the office of the Vice President or at least make it easier to remove a Vice President:
… why do we need a vice president? The vice president has no particular duties under the Constitution other than to ask after the president's health each morning and to preside over the Senate (and cast the tie-breaking vote if the Senate is evenly split). And yet the vice president -- if he proves himself a liability, or unfit to stand a heartbeat away from the Oval Office -- cannot be dismissed by the president he serves, or be removed by Congress except by impeachment. So how exactly do Americans benefit from this constitutionally ordained office?

These questions, which might seem unduly academic under normal circumstances, have taken on special meaning as a substantial majority of Americans express concern about Vice President Dick Cheney's fitness for his office. Numerous articles, most recently in The Washington Post, and earlier in The Boston Globe and elsewhere, have demonstrated Cheney's unprecedented influence over a variety of policy areas during the past six years, including the decision to go to war in Iraq and, perhaps as important, the authorization of what can only be described as torture in the interrogation of terrorism suspects, or "illegal enemy combatants."

Most Americans believe, justifiably, that Cheney has consistently displayed appallingly bad judgment. On top of this, there is his contempt for democratic accountability and oversight by other institutions of government. Most recently, he defied a presidential order requiring monitoring of classified information, claiming that he is exempt because, as Senate president, he is a member of the legislative branch. (Of course, he also defies congressional oversight by claiming certain "executive privileges.")

To remove Cheney from office, one would have to impeach him -- and there is indeed a small but growing movement among both liberals and conservatives to do just that. And yet, for better or worse, it is difficult to argue that Cheney himself has done anything in his capacity as vice president that rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," as required by the Constitution for impeachment. His only official job, presiding over the Senate, offers few opportunities for scoffing at the law. (And even if his claimed exemption from a presidential order is thought to be illegal, it is a stretch to view that as an impeachable offense, and it would, of course, take at least until the end of his term to get a judicial decision on the claim.)

Exercise of spectacularly bad judgment, alas, is not a criminal offense. If, as in parliamentary systems, Congress could remove Cheney through a vote of "no confidence," he might indeed have reason to fear for his continued employment, but the Constitution provides him job security against such a possibility.

The problem, then, is not only Dick Cheney but the US Constitution. Consider that in a 21st-century world that contains literally dozens of constitutional republics, few with constitutions written after World War II have seen fit to include a constitutionally entrenched vice president. (Most have chosen parliamentary systems, fearing autocratic presidents.) France, which just completed a dramatic presidential election, has no vice president at all. South Africa, when drafting its widely admired 1994 constitution, did provide for a "deputy president," but he serves at the pleasure of the president, which means, by definition, that he has nothing resembling the job security of Dick Cheney.

History buffs are aware that two 19th-century presidents died in office (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor), while two others were assassinated (Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield). They were succeeded by John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur, respectively -- at best nonentities, and at worst, as with Tyler and Johnson, disasters. Tyler, for example, was insistent on doing whatever he could to strengthen what was called the "slavocracy," while Johnson, as is well known, devoted most of his energies as Lincoln's successor to attempting to torpedo any significant "reconstruction" of the defeated Confederacy.

The 20th century is better on this score, giving us as successors to the Oval Office Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. But consider some of the other possibilities had events taken a different course: One can well argue, for example, that Woodrow Wilson did a disservice to the country by remaining in office following a debilitating stroke in October 1919. But had he resigned, or had the stroke simply been fatal, the amiable but otherwise unqualified former Indiana senator Thomas Marshall would have succeeded him during the crucial period following the Paris Peace Conference and the bitter conflict it generated about US ratification of the Versailles Treaty.

Had anything happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt early in his tenure, he would have been succeeded at a time of national crisis by former Speaker of the House John Nance ("Texas Jack") Garner, who shared neither Roosevelt's imagination nor his political skills. More recently, of course, we had the spectacle of the ultimately disgraced Spiro Agnew and the remarkably unfit Dan Quayle being one heartbeat away from succeeding Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, respectively.

If you are part of the majority of the population that cringes at the possibility of a Cheney presidency, the only practical advice is to pray for George Bush's health. Should something happen to the president, and should Cheney succeed to the White House, it could trigger a political crisis of stunning dimensions, given the widespread lack of trust, at home and abroad, in his judgment and commitment to basic notions of the American republic. Nevertheless, he would have gotten to the White House because of the Constitution.

The presidential candidates of both parties should be asked to explain, at least once in their frenzied campaigning, why exactly the country is well served by the current structure of presidential succession and whether they would support a constitutional amendment either eliminating the vice presidency entirely or, at the very least, making the vice president removable, either by the president or Congress, should the prospect of a given vice president's succession provoke more horror than confidence. It should not be necessary to rev up the basically unworkable machinery of formal impeachment in such cases.

We best honor those who declared our independence 231 years ago by having the willingness they exhibited to cast a cold eye on existing political institutions and to decide whether they are suitable to the times. We have good reason to be grateful for much they bequeathed us. But the entrenched vice presidency is an idea whose time has passed; we should amend the Constitution to eliminate it.
You can read his entire piece here.

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