For most of its history, the office of the vice presidency has been a curiosity rather than a danger, famous primarily for the disparaging witticisms leveled against it by its occupants. John Nance Garner observed that his job was not worth a bucket of warm piss. More decorously, Daniel Webster observed when turning down the post that he did not intend to be buried before he was dead. The very first vice president deemed the post “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
Lately, though, the vice presidency has gone from being irrelevant to being actively pernicious. The job was initially conceived as a consolation prize for the second-place finisher in presidential balloting, a scheme that almost immediately led to disaster, in the wake of the 1800 election. Thus we got the Twelfth Amendment, turning the VP into a powerless second banana, usually put on the ticket to provide regional “balance.” But recent decades have seen an effort, beginning in the Carter-Mondale administration and gathering steam during the Clinton-Gore years, to bestow some real powers on the veep. This trend reached its logical conclusion in the Dick Cheney era, which demonstrated that vesting vast, undefined power in a man who has little constitutional or statutory authority is even worse than paying someone a salary to do nothing.
Given that the office is at best worthless and at worst a threat to the republic, why don’t we simply get rid of it? Obviously, having someone ready to take over in the event of a president’s death is a necessity. Few roles could be more important. It’s just not a full-time job. Let the secretary of state, or some other designated member of the Cabinet, shoulder the responsibility; we’d save the taxpayer a few dollars and spare the nation the absurd quadrennial spectacle of VP speculation, all at the cost of eliminating an office no one respects—and one whose occupant, ideally, does nothing at all.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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