Guest Columnist

Harris, Pence shine a light on the vice president's role

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence - sitting  12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass as a pr
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence — sitting 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass as a precaution against the coronavirus — participate in the vice-presidential debate at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

This has been quite a month for Kamala Harris. As the first woman of color on a national political ticket, she’s been a focus of exceptional international curiosity. And her televised debate with the current vice president, Mike Pence, drew 50 million viewers. If you say “Kamala” everyone knows who you are talking about.

But wait there’s more. As a U.S. senator and member of the Judiciary Committee, Harris questioned — some might say interrogated — Amy Coney Barrett as a candidate for the Supreme Court. Millions learned about Harris as she interacted with Barrett.

The debate and the hearings also brought specific attention to Harris’ potential role as vice president and that’s a good thing. Sad to say, but most American’s know little about a job that has grown in importance since the 18th century.

That arc wasn’t evident early on. Our first vice president, John Adams, referred to the job as “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Not much of a recommendation.

It’s true that the vice-presidency was an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It’s a job with a fancy title but, other than presiding over the Senate, the vice president of the United States has no constitutional duties.

In fact, it’s not even clear that the founders of the republic intended that the vice president would succeed to the presidency upon the death of an incumbent. The Constitution states that executive authority would “devolve” to the vice president due to the death, removal, or inability of the president to perform the duties of the office. But the language is ambiguous, and many founders believed that the vice president was to serve only as an acting president until the election of a new president.

It was the largely-forgotten John Tyler who established a tradition of presidential succession. He impulsively took the oath of office on the death of William Henry Harrison and the rest is history. That tradition was finally codified in 1967 through the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

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And the power of the vice presidency has increased in every administration since then. Of special note were the changes that came in 1976 with the election of Walter Mondale. He quickly became a key adviser to Jimmy Carter. Mondale’s successors further expanded the duties of the vice president by accepting such tough assignments as the space program and government inefficiency.

And in this century, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden and Mike Pence have taken the office to yet new levels of power and influence by transforming it into a vital center of authority within their administrations. All three men had prior government experience that enhanced their presidents’ agendas. They quickly became first counselors to their respective presidents, and they did it in a position that was little more than an afterthought at the constitutional convention in 1788.

With a little luck, the debate and the hearings will bring more attention to the importance of the second highest office in the land. The nation needs to understand that the vice presidency is more than the “insignificant office” first occupied by John Adams.

Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and the editor of “At the President’s Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century.”

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