Joe Biden — lawyer, senator, constitutional scholar, Judiciary Committee chairman, vice presidential candidate — flubbed the question he should know more about than anything else: the job description of Vice President.
After Gwen Ifill’s question about the VP’s role (which she gift-wrapped to Sen. Biden with a gilt-edged invitation to trash Dick Cheney, and Biden did not disappoint her), he replied:
Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.
And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.
Where does one start?
- Article I of the Constitution lays out the structure and nature of the legislative branch, not the executive.
- Article II, the actual Article about the executive branch, establishes the office of Vice President and states he/she shall serve “together with the President.”
- To be fair, Article I does define one role of the Vice President, namely that he/she “shall be the President of the Senate.”
- Speaking of which, the Vice President votes in the Senate only in case of a tie. Contrary to Biden’s assertion, the VP presides over the Senate any time he/she pleases.
- The question was based on VP Cheney’s assertion that the VP’s role is not restricted solely to the executive. Based on the fact that the VP is given mention in both Articles I and II, and that the VP is one of only two officials in the entire federal government (the other being the Solicitor General) with offices in two branches, that’s hardly an unreasonable interpretation.
Shannen Coffin at NRO posts a brief and excellent historical discourse on this major gaffe by Biden. Coffin points out that for the first 150 or so years of American history, the VP’s role was primarily legislative, having virtually no executive authority at all:
The Executive Role of the Vice President, which is not delineated in Article II, has only developed in recent decades. Indeed, Vice President [Lyndon] Johnson was so concerned about certain delegations of Executive authority to him by President Kennedy that he asked the Justice Department whether he could constitutionally accept that delegation, given his concern that it would be inconsistent with his role as President of the Senate.
So given that tradition, executive precedent, and black-letter constitutional law give the Vice President footholds in two branches of government, I’d say VP Cheney has a better handle on the job than Sen. Biden, who might make use of a pocket Constitution for the occasional self-administered pop quiz. At least before a debate.