The office of the Vice-President is an odd thing. It’s sometimes seen as an afterthought, one that the Founding Fathers didn’t give much attention to. Originally, it was given to the candidate who placed second for president (a very poor notion that was quickly rectified — can one imagine how things would have been the last few years with Vice-President Gore and Vice-President Kerry?), and the sole Constitutional power given exclusively to the Vice-President is to preside over the Senate — a chore the veep often passes on, letting the Senate choose its own presiding officer. Other than that, he is pretty much expected to sit around and make sure the President is still alive and fit.
Presidents have often tried to find other duties for their veeps, to varying degrees of success. Kennedy used Lyndon Johnson’s legislative prowess to handle relations with Congress (which also kept him out of their hair). Johnson used the office to geld one of his rivals.
President George W. Bush used the opportunity to choose his vice-president as a way of locking in a senior advisor into a very prominent position, yet one with few demands of its own. Dick Cheney has been a valued right hand to him, taking on additional responsibilities and duties as they have been offered over the years.
Which is why this story in today’s Boston Globe struck me as “much ado about nothing.”
The gist of the story seems to be that an aide to Cheney has been reviewing and annotating legislation passed by Congress before it reaches the president’s desk for signing (Bush has yet to veto a single bill), offering thoughts and observations. The comments of Mr. David Addington have mostly revolved around the notion of presidential power, and how these bills might infringe or affect those powers.
As I pointed out, the link between the Vice President and Congress is deeply embedded in the Constitution — the veep has absolutely no specific duties or powers related to the Executive Branch at all, but solely in the Legislative Branch. In theory, every single bill Congress passes has to go past him, as it must pass the Senate, which he presides over. So the idea that the Vice President has absolutely nothing to do with legislation is absurd on its face.
By extension, the idea that the Vice President should have a staff member whose duties are to review legislation, and then report to the President, strikes me as entirely logical and sensible. Nobody — not even evil vice-presidents with historical ties to big oil and the demonic Halliburton, with a history of shooting lawyers — can be an expert on anything. Hiring specialists and bringing in experts is the time-honored solution.
Finally, it’s worthwhile that Mr. Addington has absolutely no formal power. President Bush can choose to accept or reject anything he says. Bush is the one who is ultimately accountable for his own actions.
John Nance Garner, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice-presidents, once described the job as “an office not worth a bucket of warm spit” (legend has it that history has cleaned up Garner’s word choice, as it is rumored that he referred to a different bodily fluid). Bush has apparently found a few good uses for that bucket, and this is just one more of them.
But that doesn’t keep folks like the Boston Globe from finding new and fresh ways to be outraged.