Thursday, October 30, 2008

That Veep Role Again

It sure does seem to be hard for people to say what the Vice President does. Sarah Palin famously overstated the Veep's role when she said that the Vice President is "in charge of the United States Senate." As I have explained, that overstatement was not really so bad as people have been making out, inasmuch as she was trying to explain the Vice President's job in a way that would be understandable to a third-grader.

But now George Will, who should really know better, responds that the Vice President has "no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes."

Look, what is so hard about this? There's just one sentence that sums it all up. The Constitution provides that "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."

So while Palin overstated the Vice President's role, Will understated it. The Vice President does have a constitutional function in the Senate other than casting tie-breaking votes. The Vice President is the President, or presiding officer, of the Senate. So the Vice President presides over meetings of the Senate, which involves choosing Senators to speak and making rulings on points of parliamentary procedure.

It's not much of a role. The Senate rules rather sharply constrain the power of the presiding officer -- in part precisely because the Senate doesn't want the Vice President to show up and exercise a lot of power. Even in choosing which Senator to call on, the presiding officer is constrained -- the rules require calling on whichever Senator rises first. And rulings of the presiding officer on parliamentary questions can be appealed to the full Senate (although this rarely happens).

For this reason, the power of the presiding officer is sufficiently minor that most of the time the Vice President doesn't even bother to show up to exercise it. But it's not nothing -- it's sufficiently important that the majority party permits only members of the majority party to preside.

So if we're going to jump on Palin for overstating the Veep's role, we should be careful not to understate it either.

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