The vice president of the United States occupies a high position in government, yet is given little responsibility under the U.S. Constitution. A person elected vice president presides over the Senate, but apart from that duty, he or she must rely upon the president to assign additional responsibilities. The Constitution requires that a vice president of the United States must be a native-born citizen, 35 years of age or older, who has resided in the United States for at least 14 years. The electoral college chooses the vice president, who holds office for a term of four years.
Until 1804, under Article II, Section 2, Clause 3, of the Constitution, each member of the electoral college was permitted to vote for two persons. The person receiving the highest total became president, and the person receiving the second highest total became vice president. The ratification of the twelfth amendment to the Constitution, in 1804, changed this procedure by requiring each elector to vote for president and vice president on separate ballots instead of voting for two persons on a single ballot.
During the early years of the Republic, the vice president was limited to the only function set forth in the Constitution, that of president of the Senate. (As such, he or she occupies a largely ceremonial role, having no vote unless the senators are equally divided on a particular issue.) In 1841, however, john tyler became the first vice president to take over the presidency because of the death of the chief executive, in this case President william henry harrison. Article II of the Constitution was silent on the matter of succession, so some political leaders suggested that Tyler serve as acting president. Tyler rejected this idea, and announced that he would assume the full powers and duties of the office, setting a precedent that would be followed by other vice presidents.
Presidential succession was clarified by the Twentieth and Twenty-fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Under the twentieth amendment, if a president-elect dies before assuming office, the vice president elect becomes president. Under the twenty-fifth amendment, if the president is removed from office, dies, or resigns during his or her term of office, the vice president becomes president of the United States. Eight U.S. presidents have died in office, with the result that the vice president assumed the presidency. In 1974, Vice President gerald r. ford became president when richard m. nixon resigned in the face of impeachment charges.
The Twenty-fifth Amendment also provides a method for the vice president to become acting president. If the president transmits a message to both houses of Congress stating that he or she cannot discharge the powers and duties of the office, the vice president becomes acting president. Until the president subsequently transmits a written declaration to the contrary, the vice president remains acting president.
In addition, the amendment deals with how to determine whether or not a president is unable to govern. In such a case the vice president and a majority of the cabinet may transmit to both houses of Congress a declaration that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. If this occurs, the vice president must immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as acting president.
The president may resume his or her duties by notifying the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives that the disability no longer exists. However, the vice president and the majority of the cabinet may send a declaration to Congress within four days disputing the assertion of the president that he or she is able to discharge the duties of the office. If this happens, Congress must vote by a two-thirds majority in both houses that the president is unable to serve. Otherwise, the president will reassume office.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment has been invoked during only one brief period of time. In 1985, when President ronald reagan under-went cancer surgery, he transferred power to Vice President george h. w. bush for a period of eight hours. Several commentators expected Bush to take charge under the amendment four years earlier, in 1981, when Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. However, the president did not yield control even though later reports showed that he was in critical condition.
If a vice president dies in office or resigns, the Twenty-fifth Amendment authorizes the
president to choose a new vice president, subject to confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. This situation occurred twice during the Nixon and Ford administrations. In 1973, President Nixon appointed Gerald R. Ford to replace Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned in the face of criminal bribery charges. When Nixon resigned in August 1974 because of the watergate scandal, Ford became president. Ford then appointed Nelson A. Rockefeller vice president.
The executive functions of the vice president include participation in all cabinet meetings and, by statute, membership in the national security council, the Domestic Council, and the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Although the vice president may take an active role in establishing policy in the executive branch by serving on such committees and councils, the relative power of the vice president's office depends upon the duties delegated by the president.
In recent years, vice presidents such as al gore and Dick Cheney have played significant roles on both the domestic and international fronts. Gore, for example, was heavily involved in establishing environmental policy during President bill clinton's administration. Likewise, Cheney—who served as secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush—has been highly influential in establishing the international agenda of President george w. bush.
The events that occurred during and after the september 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrate the importance of the vice president's position. Immediately after the attacks began, secret service agents removed Vice President Cheney to a secret bunker beneath the White House. President Bush was in Florida when the attacks occurred, and Cheney maintained contact with him throughout the confusing morning. When reports indicated that terrorists were flying a hijacked plane toward Washington, Cheney reportedly ordered that the plane should be shot down by the military. Several passengers on the flight attacked the terrorists before military action was necessary, though the plane crashed in Pennsylvania and killed everyone on board.
In the days that followed the attacks, Cheney was moved to a number of secret locations in order to separate him from Bush. The fear was that terrorists would launch assassination attempts. Some commentators and news organizations later criticized the Bush administration for keeping Cheney in hiding, with CBS News noting, "Cheney is an integral part of the president's team and a comforting figure to Americans. Removing him from sight leads to speculation about his health or political status and is not helpful to the administration in selling its message that they have things under control."
Purcell, L. Edward. 2001. Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Checkmark Books.
"Richard B. Cheney: Inside the Vice President's Office." Available online at <www.whitehouse.gov/vicepresident> (accessed February 24, 2004).