How the U.S. Vice President Works

John Adams, the first of the bunch. See more pictures of American presidents.
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­It's a rare moment indeed that an American kid respo­nds to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "vice president!" Perhaps that's because the office, as historian Mark Hatfield wrote, is "the least understood, most ridiculed, and most often ignored constitutional office in the federal government" [source: Hatfield].­

It makes sense; the vice presidency was originally a consolation prize given to the runner-up in the national election. State electors were asked to cast ballots for two candidates, and one of the candidates had to live outside of the elector's home state. This process assured that eventually a leader of national prominence would emerge as president; the person who came in second became vice president.


More than two centuries later, the role of vice president is little more respected among the public than it was in the beginning. But this perception is despite the contributions and efforts of a long line of seconds-in-command. Some vice presidents have gone on to fulfill the presidency, taking over after the president's death or winning a later election. Admittedly, some have done m­ore with their position than others. The office is definitely what a vice president makes of it; the Constitution offers no guidelines for the vice president other than that the "Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate," but he or she can vote only as a tie breaker [source: Cornell].

­But the role of the vice president has always been a potentially important one. He or she is next in ­line for the presidency, a "heartbeat away" from arguably the most powerful position in the world as the office of president was described during the 2008 presidential race [source: Newsday]. And in the wake of the administration of President George W. Bush, whose vice president, Dick Cheney, became the most powerful vice president ever to hold the office, discussion of the vice president's role is a hotter topic than ever before.

­In this article, we'll examine the misunderstood office of the vice president and look at some of the people who've made it what it is today.

Constitutional Provisions for the Vice Presidency

Aaron Burr tied with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election through more than 35 ballots. The tie led Congress to pass the 12th Amendment.

Because the office of the vice president was created almost as an after­thought by the framers of the Constitution, Congress has clarified and defined the role over the years through constitutional amendments.

The original provision for the election of a vice president -- that of runner-up for the presidency -- was soon revealed as flawed. In the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. The House of Representatives, charged with voting in the event of an electoral tie, cast their ballots -- and received the same deadlock 35 times. Ultimately, Jefferson won, but the experience was enough for Congress to create the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804, setting up our current system of electors casting different ballots for the president and vice president.


­The 25th Amendment was another landmark change in the vice presidency. Before 1967, when the amendment was adopted, should the vice president take over as president, resign or die, the office remained vacant until the next election. The 25th Amendment gave the president (whether it is the original president or the newly succeeded former vice president) the power to appoint a new vice president to fill the role. The appointment, like all other presidential appointments, is subject to confirmation by Congress; in this case a majority vote by both the House and the Senate.

The vice presidency was further clarified by the 25th in that it also spelled out the protocol for the transfer of power from the president to the vice president, should the former become incapacitated or unable to carry out the duties of the office. The most straightforward means by which this event can transpire is the president formally alerting the speaker of the house and the Senate president pro tempore that he or she can no longer carry out the responsibilities of the office. The presidency is then transferred to the vice president, who holds the office as acting president until the elected president tells the speaker and president pro tempore that he or she is able to resume the presidency.

A stickier situation arises when the vice president alerts the Senate president and the speaker of the house that the president is unable to carry out the office, essentially grabbing power from the president. However, the vice president needs the formal support of the majority of the members of the Cabinet for that to transpire. The vice president can also, with a majority of the Cabinet, block a president who's relinquished power from retaking the office. If the president contests this charge of inability, Congress deliberates the issue and can overturn the vice president's role as acting president with a two-thirds vote by both the House and the Senate.

This power grab has never taken place in the history of the United States, and only once has a president transferred power to a vice president since the 25th Amendment was adopted. Prior to undergoing cancer surgery, President Ronald Reagan transferred power to Vice President George H.W. Bush, though it was technically an informal transfer since Reagan didn't invoke the 25th Amendment.

The Constitution lays out the qualifications for vice president, and they're the same as those required for the president. The vice president must have been born in the United States (or on U.S. soil abroad), must be at least 35 years old and must have spent at least 14 years of his or her life in the United States.

­Throughout the history of the vice presidency, those who've held the office have helped mold and shape it. Read about the evolution of the U.S. vice presidency on the next page.

The Evolution of the U.S. Vice Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt cultivated a new respect among Americans for the vice presidency.
Topical Press Agency/­Getty Images

Right out of the gate, it appeared that the person serving as vice president had a clear shot at winning the presidency after the incumbent leader finished serving. John Adams, vice president to the first president, George Washington, won the election after Washington's tenure. President Adams' second in command, Thomas Jefferson, was elected president right after serving his term as vice president. Jefferson's transition to power marked the beginning of a long dry spell for incumbent vice presidents, however. After his tenure, only two more vice presidents were elected president directly in the next election, Martin Van Buren in 1836 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 [source: Encarta]. What happened?

Gifted with hindsight, historians generally point to the passage of the 12th Amendment as a major turning point in the importance of the position of vice president. No longer was the vice president a viable (although defeated) contender for the position of president; instead, it was left to the political parties to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates for national elections. This nomination inadvertently created the party ticket, and the custom of choosing vice presidential candidates based on their appeal to a constituency rather than their ability to lead was born. Even in modern times, vice presidents are generally chosen to offset a presidential candidate so that combined, a ticket will appeal to as many voters as possible.


­Throughout the 19th century, the vice president had no real role in government outside of his duty as Senate president. This changed with Theodore Roosevelt. Following the assassination of the president, William McKinley, in 1901, Roosevelt ascended to the presidency and became one of the most active and popular presidents in American history. President Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas Marshall, became the first in 116 years to attend Cabinet meetings (the last vice president to do so being John Adams).

The early 20th century saw a revving of the vice presidential engine, with the office going at full throttle under President Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt had three vice presidents serve under him during his 12 years in office, and he afforded them more power than any others before. Roosevelt included his vice presidents at Cabinet meetings (although President Warren Harding was the first president to attempt including his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, at the meetings). President Roosevelt also made it customary for the vice president to be involved in negotiations with Congressional leaders over legislation.

Roosevelt also had a major indirect influence on the vice presidency; he kept his last vice president, Harry Truman, out of the loop on secret projects, such as the Manhattan Project to create a nuclear bomb. When Roosevelt died in office, Truman took over in 1945 as a wartime president without any sure knowledge of the bomb. Four years later, Congress passed a law that requires the vice president have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, which briefs and advises the executive branch on military and intelligence.

In the modern era, presidents have given more responsibilities to the vice president. President John Kennedy put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of the space program and the development of NASA. Under President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller headed a committee that investigated abuses by the CIA, including the testing of LSD on unsuspecting Americans.

Vice President Richard Nixon further expanded the office both figuratively and literally. While Nixon was in the vice president office, the vice presidential offices opened in the Executive Office Building (in addition to the traditional office space in the Senate Building), and the vice presidential staff was expanded as well.

Take a closer look at the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. vice president next.

Executive Roles and Responsibilities of the U.S. Vice President

Dan Quayle and George H.W. Bush
Sen. Dan Quayle, vice president under George H.W. Bush, was chosen in the 1988 race to balance the ticket in part because of his youth.
Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/­Getty Images

It's difficult to say precisely what vice presidents do in any collective sense; in many cases vice presidents do what assignments they can wrestle out of the president's hands. Some have done little at all, aside from being present in case the president can't perform his or her duties. Most often, vice presidents do what their presidents ask them to.

­Over time, and through precedents set by earlier vice presidents, customary roles for the vice president have emerged. He or she may serve as a surrogate while the president is traveling abroad. The vice president may receive foreign dignitaries -- a customary role of the executive branch -- and host state dinners. The vice president may also travel in the president's stead, to meet with foreign counterparts or attend state funerals. The vice presidency has traditionally been an office where the spillover of unwanted or extra presidential responsibilities lands.


Perhaps the most contiguous role of the vice presidency over the years has been that of ticket balancer. Vice presidents have often served as foils to the president; conservative or liberal, experienced or young, domestically minded or interested in foreign policy. The constituency a vice president brings along is also important; a Southerner may be chosen to balance a Northern presidential candidate. The vice president's importance in balancing a ticket during a campaign is generally short-lived, however. Vice presidents chosen mostly or solely on their ability to balance tickets -- such as Vice President Dan Quayle -- have traditionally seen "their status and value evaporated after election day" [source: Hatfield].

Modern vice presidents have also assumed another traditional role during the campaign: attack dog for the head of the ticket. While the electors of a state are compelled to cast separate votes for the president and vice president, the popular vote is by ticket or party. Conventional wisdom states that individual voters generally vote for the head of the ticket. Largely freed from constraints of popular opinion, the vice presidential candidate can serve as a vocal critic of the opposition and launch attacks against it. This allows the presidential candidate to maintain an air of composure and decorum toward the rival candidates, while still attacking the opposition's credibility, experience and policies. This role of surrogate may also continue after inauguration, as some modern vice presidents have continued their role of defender of presidential agendas and lambaster of presidential critics.

Some vice presidents have taken a more active role than others. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon took strong stances on behalf of the administration. Nixon largely took matters into his own hands to shape the roles of the vice presidency to suit his ambitions, and he was successful. Whereas vice presidents before him may have simply smiled and left debate with foreign leaders to their president, Nixon often took the foreign policy reins. In one famous visit to the USSR in 1959, Vice President Nixon toured an international exposition in Moscow with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Nixon debated the merits of capitalism over democracy with Khrushchev, much of the discussion being caught on television, and launching Nixon and the office of the vice president into new levels of prestige in the public opinion.

Ultimately, the vice president has one main duty, to preside over the Senate.

The Vice President as President of the Senate

Vice President Dick Cheney welcomes returning senators, including Sen. Hillary Clinton
As president of the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney welcomes returning senators, including Sen. Hillary Clinton (and husband, former President Bill Clinton), during the swearing-in ceremony of the 110th Congress in 2007.
Alex Wong/­Getty Images

The office of the vice president of the United States is a unique one. It's the only office in the federal government that straddles two of the three branches of government, the legislative and the executive. Since the vice president serves as an official of the executive branch but also as the president of the Senate, some in the course of history have found the office an affront to the separation of powers [source: Hatfield]. Customarily, however, vice presidents have chosen to focus on either the legislative or the executive duties, rather than both.

­The vice president's presiding powers over the Senate are largely hamstrung by the strict rules order the Senate adopted centuries ago. During the leisure time afforded during his vice presidency, Thomas Jefferson wrote a procedural handbook that the Senate and the House still use as a guide today.


While in the Senate, the vice president is expected to speak only when ruling on an issue of order, and in another case, when carrying out the Senate president's official duty of announcing the electoral tallies for the presidential race. This has proven sticky for some vice presidents who've run for the presidential office and lost; they were forced to announce to the Senate the victory of their rivals. Four vice presidents -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush -- had the satisfaction of announcing their own victories to the Senate [source: Hatfield].

The vice president's main power is the ability to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. This isn't as powerful as it sounds. Senate leaders commonly lobby for support for a bill before they call for a vote on the Senate floor. So senators know ahead of time whether a bill has enough votes to pass. What's more, the Senate president's vote only counts if the vote is affirmative; essentially the vice president can only vote yes. That's due to Senate procedural rules that state a bill has been defeated if a tie is reached. The only effect a vice president can have in a tie breaker is if he or she votes yes to break a tie, since a no vote on an already defeated bill is useless.

Some vice presidents have taken their role as president of the Senate seriously. Thomas Jefferson saw the role as the sole one he had as vice president and stayed in Washington only when the Senate was in session. (Jefferson saw his election to the vice presidency in 1796 as a chance to rest up and await the presidency in the next election.) Vice President Spiro Agnew, who served under Richard Nixon, spent time in the Senate, but vacated the responsibility after one senator accused him of lobbying on the Senate floor, which is illegal. Vacating the presidency of the Senate is a long-held tradition among most vice presidents. According to Senate procedure, a temporary president (a serving senator) can only be chosen in the absence of the vice president. So the vice president simply leaves the Senate chambers and the Senate chooses a president pro tempore.

Find out about the support and staff the vice president enjoys next.

Support and Staff for U.S. Vice President

The vice president'­s residence at the Naval Observatory.
Courtesy David Bohrer/The White House

For the first 185 years after the creation of the office of the vice president of the United States, the people who served in that capacity were homeless. At least, there wasn't any federally designated home reserved expressly for the use of the vice president and his family. It was up to the vice president to find and pay for his own home, which was an added expense, since most vice presidents hail from areas of the nation outside of Washington.

That changed in 1974, when Congress mandated that a Victorian mansion on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, located at One Observatory Circle off Massachusetts Ave., become the vice presidential residence. The house was formerly reserved for the chief of naval operations until Congress took custody of it for the vice president. In the 1980s, Vice President George Bush raised private donations for a remodeling of the vice presidential mansion.


In addition to the free house, the vice president is compensated for his or her service in the federal government. The Constitutional framers specified the president would be compensated but didn't mention the vice president. From the outset, however, the vice president received an annual salary -- originally $5,000. By 2008, that salary had risen to $208,100. Pay increases are at the discretion of the president and are granted by percentages of the former pay, then rounded up to the next hundred.

The vice president has a government jet at his disposal. The president's private jet, Air Force One, is his or her exclusive domain; the Boeing 757 the vice president uses is equally decked out -- complete with a fully furnished stateroom -- but use of the plane is shared with the first lady and Cabinet members. When the vice president is aboard, the call sign for the plane becomes Air Force Two.

Like the president, the vice president is protected by a Secret Service detail. Unlike the president, however, the protection doesn't extend to his immediate family, nor does the protection continue after the vice president leaves office (unless he or she ascends to the presidency or is elected to it). Secret Service protection is a 20th century phenomenon for the president; it wasn't until after the assassination of President James McKinley that the agency began serving as presidential bodyguards, and it didn't become permanent until 1913. Secret Service protection is even more modern for the vice presidency. In 1951, the agency officially extended an offer for protection to the vice president if he wanted it, and in 1961, mandatory protection was extended to include the vice president and vice president-elect.

The vice president has two staffs, one for the executive and one for the legislative offices. The Senate furnishes the vice president with a staff of around 40 aides, but the most trusted staff works out of the vice president's office in the Executive Building. It's here that the vice president's chief of staff, national security adviser, legal advisers and speechwriters work to carry out a presidency in miniature. Prior to 1970, the vice president had to finagle free labor out of his aides or pay them himself. That year was the first that Congress appropriated funds for the vice presidential staff [source: Political Dictionary].

For the most part, vice presidents have concentrated mostly on the executive branch. One, however, has argued that because of the position in the legislative and executive branches of government, the vice presidency is ultimately beholden to neither. This vice president was Dick Cheney, who, along with Vice President Al Gore, has done more to expand and shape the office than any others.

Read about the two vice presidents who took an aggressive view of the office next.

The Vice Presidency After Gore and Cheney

Vice President Al Gore has continued the work he began as a vice president, including winning the Nobel Prize for his environmental work and remaining a powerful figure in the Democratic Party.
Marc Piscotty for Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

­"Throughout much of American history, the vice president has served chiefly as a remin­der of presidential mortality," wrote Broder and Henneberger in the New York Times in 2000. "These eight years have proved another way of looking at the job" [source: Broder and Henneberger].

­The authors we­re describing the vice presidency of Al Gore, a former senator from Tennessee who served from 1992 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton. Perhaps "beside" is a better word. From the outset, Gore changed the terms of the vice presidency, bringing along members from his Senate staff and installing trusted friends into appointments that customarily were assigned by the president, such as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These appointments weren't mere political favors; Gore made use of his friends and allies. Under the Clinton/Gore administration, the FCC oversaw the creation of a new tax on telecommunications companies. This tax funded a federal program to install Internet connections in public classrooms and the passage of v-chip technology that allows parents to block programming on their televisions.


Although Gore was a benefactor of emerging technology during the '90s, he was better known as a champion of the environment. He pressed President Clinton to lobby Congress for stricter mileage standards for American-made cars. He also managed to extend the ban on offshore oil drilling along the Atlantic Coast and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Despite Congress' abject refusal to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, Gore flew to the conference in Japan to negotiate among other nations.

Vice President Gore also played a further role in foreign policy. Most presidents have jealously guarded their place over this domain. Gore carved a place for his office at the foreign policy table by creating an alliance with his Russian counterpart and overseeing the removal of nuclear missiles from post-Soviet splinter states. Gore also put strong pressure on President Clinton to order air strikes against Serbs engaged in ethnic cleansing against Muslim Bosnians in the Balkans [source: Broder and Henneberger].

Vice President Dick Cheney, who served President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2008, expanded the office's power even further. In some cases, he actually directed the president -- or at least led him in a favored direction. In 2001, Cheney presented a draft of an executive order that denied a trial or court martial to terror suspects, which the president signed within an hour [source: Telegraph].

While in office, Vice President Cheney created a special top secret classification for his files, Top Secret/SCI (sensitive compartmentalized information), now the highest classification of sensitive material [source: Washington Post]. Cheney, a veteran House member from Wyoming, also served as emissary between the executive and legislative branch. He argued vehemently for the restoration of presidential powers, reasoning that they'd been limited by Congress in response to abuses by the Nixon administration (in which Cheney began his political career as an aide) and should be expanded in the face of the war on terror. Overall, Cheney was successful in his arguments.

There are drawbacks to taking an advanced leadership role; along with taking credit for the successes, the vice president also has to answer for the mistakes. Vice President Gore was roundly criticized for a deal he brokered with the Russians that allowed them to sell weapons to Iran, an illegal act on Gore's part [source: Broder and Henneberger]. And revelations about Cheney's involvement in the establishment of illegal treatment of prisoners at U.S. prisons overseas led him to be viewed as a "comic book villain" by Washington insiders [source: Telegraph].

­While the limits of power Gore and Cheney pushed the vice presidential to was historic, there have been many noteworthy events in the office during its history.

Historic Events in the Office of the U.S. Vice Presidency

Spiro Agnew, the only vice president to resign the office, plead no contest on tax evasion charges.
Bill Pierce/Time & Life Pictures/­Getty Images

Perhaps one reason the vice presidency has so long been a disrespected and ofte­n ridiculed office, is due to the fact that the federal government has functioned perfectly normally on a number of occasions while the seat was vacant. Throughout U.S. history, the country has had seven vice presidents die in office and one resign (more on that in a moment). These events, in addition to the eight times vice presidents have risen to the presidency following the death of a president, left the vice presidential office unoccupied on 17 occasions.

­On most of these occasions, the office remained vacant for the remainder of the presidential term, at times more than three years. In only one of those cases, following the death of Vice President George Clinton, was the position filled in less than a year. Even in the modern era, when a vice president ascends to the presidency, the office may remain vacant for a month or more as Congress vets and confirms the president's appointed replacement. Vice President Clinton also had another distinction; he is one of only two vice presidents to serve under two different presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The other vice president to hold that honor was John C. Calhoun, who served John Quincy Adams and then ran with the opposition candidate, Andrew Jackson, who won.


The appointment of a vice president in times of vacancy spelled out in the 25th Amendment became vitally important only six years after it was passed. In 1973, Spiro Agnew was indicted on charges of tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency. President Richard Nixon appointed (and the Senate confirmed) Gerald Ford, a House member from Michigan, to fill the role. The following year, the 25th was invoked again after President Nixon resigned during the scandal surrounding the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Ford ascended to the presidency (becoming the first person to serve as both vice president and president and not have been elected to either office) and appointed Nelson Rockefeller to his former position.

One of President Ford's first decisions as president was to use his power to pardon Richard Nixon of any crimes he may have committed while in office. Ford was later understood as laying to rest for better or worse a national disgrace, but at the time and for many years to follow, the pardon was seen as the worst kind of political act [source: The U.S. Senate]. Ford was defeated by President Jimmy Carter in the following election.

We've learned that only four incumbent vice presidents were directly elected to office, but other previous vice presidents managed to become elected as president following a hiatus from the White House. Vice President Richard Nixon ran for the presidency in 1960 but was defeated by Sen. John F. Kennedy. Nixon made it to the highest office in 1972. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were the only vice presidents to ascend to the presidency by means of death who were re-elected.

The vice presidency also has been a proving ground for breaking social barriers. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice president to be nominated to a major party ticket when Democratic candidate Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate. The Republican Party blazed the same trail in 2008, when Sen. John McCain selected Gov. Sarah Palin for the bottom of the ticket. And the 2000 race saw the first Jewish vice presidential candidate when Vice President Al Gore chose Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

­With the changes and expansion the office of the U.S. vice president has undergone in the modern era, especially with Al Gore and Dick Cheney at the helm, the scope of the vice presidency has widened dramatically. Unless any of the roles taken on by past vice presidents are codified or become steeped in tradition, though, the vice presidency will remain what it's always been -- what a vice president makes of it.

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