On the official website of the United States Senate, the Office of the Vice President of the United States is described as “…the least understood, most ridiculed, and most often ignored constitutional office in the federal government…” With only two constitutional duties, it’s easy to see why the office is misunderstood, but the day to day activities of each vice president depend largely on the needs of the presidential administration they serve.
One of the Vice President’s most well known duties is to assume the office of president in the event the elected president becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties. William Henry Harrison was the first president to be succeeded by his vice president, following his death in 1841. Before his death, the exact process of naming a presidential successor was never tried or tested in the United States. Our founding fathers only stated in the Constitution that the powers and duties of the President “shall devolve on the Vice President” if the president ever became unable to fulfill the duties of the office. John Taylor contended that the “office” of president was devolved on him following the death of President Harrison, because it was the powers and duties of the office that defined it, elevating John Taylor to fully fledged President of the United States, not just acting-president. Few in the government challenged the newly promoted President Taylor and he was even granted full presidential salary, five times greater than the salary he earned as vice president. Following the death of the second president to die in office, Zachary Taylor, Vice President Millard Fillmore was elevated to the office of President swiftly and without question.
The other duty of the Vice President is to serve as the President of the Senate. With two representatives from each state serving in the Senate, the Vice President may only cast a senate vote when a tie occurs. One framer of the Constitution, Elbridge Gerry, was staunchly against having the vice president serve as the president of the senate because he feared too much executive influence on the legislature and preferred that the branches of government remain absolutely independent of each other. While many supported Gerry’s belief, or simply felt that a senate president was unnecessary, the vice president was eventually allowed to serve as President of the Senate because, as delegate Roger Sherman put it, “if the vice-President were not the President of the Senate, he would be without employment” and would force another senator to be “deprived of his vote” in an effort to avoid ties.
Other duties and responsibilities have fallen on vice presidents over the years, but they have often been dictated by the President they serve. Some vice presidents have focused largely on their legislative duties while others performed a managerial role for their president. Vice presidents often receive executive assignments from their presidents and can serve in a wide range of advisory roles for the president. The president may also call on the vice president to represent the executive branch at official functions when the president is unable to attend.
Vice President of the United States (President of the Senate). United States Senate.