The lull before the storm is a moment for one of our favorite topics — the vice presidency. The Georgia results are still to be officially declared and today’s joint session of Congress hasn’t begun. It’s a moment to mull what the vice president is and isn’t. Particularly since the Times is reporting that Mr. Pence, over lunch yesterday at the White House, told President Trump he lacks the power to change the election result.
Mr. Pence’s message, report ace Timeswomen Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni (the latter started at the Sun), “came hours after Mr. Trump further turned up the public pressure on the vice president to do his bidding when Congress convenes Wednesday in a joint session to ratify Mr. Biden’s Electoral College win.” Mr. Trump says the conversation never took place, but we’ll go with Ms. Karni & Co.
What arrests us is the word “bidding.” The fact is that the president cannot require the vice president to do his bidding. The vice president wasn’t his nominee. Mr. Pence was a nominee of the Republican Party. It is true that Mr. Trump asked the party to nominate Mr. Pence as vice president. The president, though, is not the vice president’s boss. The president can’t fire the vice president.
Just to mark the point, the president can’t summon the vice president to lunch. He can’t lower the veep’s salary or keep track of his hours. The vice president is president of the Senate, but it can’t fire him either. It’s not clear to us that the vice president should, or is even constitutionally permitted, to be a member of the president’s cabinet. John Adams, say, didn’t get anywhere near being in Geo. Washington’s cabinet.
The word “cabinet” doesn’t even fetch up in the Constitution. It merely says that the President “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.” The vice president, though, doesn’t head any executive department. The only “department” — we use the word loosely — he heads is the Senate.
The idea that the vice president belongs in the cabinet is a 20th century innovation. It seems to have started with Nixon. Traditionally, the veep wasn’t even given office space in the executive building. Instead, the Senate maintains in the Capitol a glorious suite of offices called the vice president’s room. It’s there, rather than the executive office building, that we’ve long felt the vice president ought to base himself.
We wrote about that four years ago in “A Radical Vice President,” which we defined as “one determined to restore to the vice presidency its constitutional role as a member not of the executive branch but of the Senate. And also as an independent actor.” We grasp that presiding over the Senate, the veep’s main duty, isn’t gripping work (Vice President Hamlin busied himself serving as a cook on a Coast Guard vessel).
The vice presidency has its moments, though, and today is one of them. A great deal of comment lately has suggested that the Constitution suggests that Mr. Pence’s role, as president of the Senate, is but ministerial. He’s to open the certificates of the electoral vote that the Constitution requires be sealed in the state where they were certified and then be sent to the “seat of the government” and directed to the Senate president.
The parchment, though, is silent on what the president of the Senate is to do if there is more than one envelope from the states (as there was in, say, 1960, from Hawaii; Vice President Nixon chose the Democrats envelope). Which is why there has been so much attention to the President’s lunch with the Vice President. It may be true that the President can’t fire the vice president, but the moment reminds that the reverse can happen.