Chris Matthews Needs a History Lesson on the Vice Presidency

MSNBC's Chris Matthews spent the first 15 minutes of the October 22 "Hardball" haranguing McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer over vice presidential contender Gov. Sarah Palin's view of the role of the Vice President as President of the U.S. Senate. Matthews scoffed that Palin's answers contradict the Constitution, including her telling a 3rd grader today that the Vice President "runs the Senate" and "can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes."

But while Matthews was correct to argue that the majority leader is the real conductor of the legislative train in the upper chamber of the Congress, he was incorrect in insisting it is the Constitution which leaves the Vice President with no say in the daily affairs of the U.S. Senate other than casting tie-breaking votes.

As the U.S. Senate Web site makes clear, while the Constitution restricts the Vice President's votes to tie-breakers, in the earliest days of the Republic, Senate rules of order afforded the Vice President a greater role in the workings of the chamber as presiding officer than they do now. Indeed, at the time of its ratification, some critics worried the executive branch had too forceful a hand in the Senate's workings (emphases mine):

Several framers ultimately refused to sign the Constitution, in part because they viewed the vice president's legislative role as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Elbridge Gerry, who would later serve as vice president, declared that the framers "might as well put the President himself as head of the legislature." Others thought the office unnecessary but agreed with Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman that "if the vice-President were not to be President of the Senate, he would be without employment, and some member [of the Senate, acting as presiding officer] must be deprived of his vote."

Under the original code of Senate rules, the presiding officer exercised great power over the conduct of the body's proceedings. Rule XVI provided that "every question of order shall be decided by the President [of the Senate], without debate; but if there be a doubt in his mind, he may call for a sense of the Senate." Thus, contrary to later practice, the presiding officer was the sole judge of proper procedure and his rulings could not be turned aside by the full Senate without his assent.

The first two vice presidents, Adams and Jefferson, did much to shape the nature of the office, setting precedents that were followed by others. During most of the nineteenth century, the degree of influence and the role played within the Senate depended chiefly on the personality and inclinations of the individual involved. Some had great parliamentary skill and presided well, while others found the task boring, were incapable of maintaining order, or chose to spend most of their time away from Washington, leaving the duty to a president pro tempore. Some made an effort to preside fairly, while others used their position to promote the political agenda of the administration.

During the twentieth century, the role of the vice president has evolved into more of an executive branch position. Now, the vice president is usually seen as an integral part of a president's administration and presides over the Senate only on ceremonial occasions or when a tie-breaking vote may be needed. Yet, even though the nature of the job has changed, it is still greatly affected by the personality and skills of the individual incumbent.

While Gov. Palin may very well find herself with little say in the Senate's business, it's not because the Constitution tells her to sit down and shut it, it's because the rules of the chamber have made it such that the presiding officer, be it the Vice President or a pro tempore officer, has little power in affecting the course or substance of floor debate.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters