Evolution of the vice presidency and Cheney’s claims

This man claims he's not a member of the executive branch of government

This man claims he is not a member of the executive branch of government.

Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney has claimed that he is not, in fact, part of the executive branch of government. The claim was part of his bid to be able to destroy large amounts of records produced by his office and to avoid handing those over to the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act. Apparently, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington told Congress that the vice president belongs to neither the executive nor legislative branch of government, but rather is attached by the Constitution to Congress, by virtue of being President of the Senate.

In modern times, Vice Presidents have only very rarely presided over the Senate, as the position carries almost no power; virtually all the presiding officer of the Senate does is recognize people to speak. Veeps pretty much only appear when a vote that is important to the president is expected to be very close so that they can be ready to cast a tie-breaking vote, the only power of the office specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

Modern vice presidents have little to do with the legislative branch, beyond lobbying members behind the scenes, but they are immersed in the operations of the executive branch. This represents a considerable evolution of the office. America’s first Vice President, John Adams, presided over the Senate most of the time it was in session; he angered Senators by becoming involved in actual debate and trying to steer the affairs of the chamber. George Washington’s administration did not allow Adams to attend cabinet meetings, on the theory that he was a member of the legislative branch and that his presence would violate the separation of powers. Most would be surprised to learn that the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings was Thomas Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).

Modern vice presidents do attend, and in the absence of the president preside over, cabinet meetings and meetings of the National Security Council; they perform numerous ceremonial duties, like attending funerals, presenting awards, and giving speeches; and they largely serve as point man for the president, so their actual responsibilities and influence can vary greatly with their relationship to the top guy. Cheney has been a particularly active number two, as was Al Gore before him (they’re probably the two most active and consequential vice presidents in history, excluding those that were elevated to the presidency). By statute, the vice president also serves ex officio as one of 17 members of the Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents, one of very few legally required duties.

Back when the office was rather unimportant, vice presidents mostly seem to have spent their time commenting on how pointless the office was. John Adams, for instance, declared it to be “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” John Nance Garner, the first of Franklin Roosevelt’s three vice presidents, said the office was “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (often bowdlerized to “a bucket of warm spit”). The aforementioned Thomas Marshall claimed that most of the “nameless, unremembered” jobs assigned to him had been concocted essentially to keep vice presidents from doing any harm to their administrations.

Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President of the United States since 1974

Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President of the United States since 1974

There is an interesting anecdote that I can’t help sharing about Calvin Coolidge’s time in the office, back when the office did not have an official residence. Coolidge was living at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. when it was evacuated in the middle of the night due to a small fire. He got tired of waiting outside and attempted to go back in; a fireman tried to stop him, but then decided to let Coolidge proceed when he identified himself as the Vice President. However, before he could actually enter the hotel, the fireman stopped him again and asked, “What are you the Vice President of?” Upon learning that he was the Vice President of the United States, he sent Coolidge outside again to wait with the rest of the huddled masses. “I thought you were the vice president of the hotel,” the fireman explained.

Since 1974, the Vice President has been entitled to live in a large Victorian house on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Vice President Gerald Ford became President before he could use the home, and Nelson Rockefeller, primarily used the home for entertaining since he already had a residence in Washington. Walter Mondale was the first Vice President to actually move into the home and every Vice President since has lived in the house.

Anyway, I think it makes the most sense to view the vice president as both a member of the executive branch and a member of the legislative branch, but all of his papers and documents produced pursuant to his role and duties within the executive branch, which constitutes the vast bulk of Cheney’s duties, would definitely fall under the Presidential Records Act; it might be permissible to withhold documents produced in his capacity as President of the Senate. Of course, given Cheney’s extreme predilection for secrecy, this would probably lead to much more litigation. Congress could perhaps settle the matter more quickly by legislating on the matter, specifically extending the act to cover all or most of the Vice Presidents papers.

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