On 20 January, Kamala Harris will become vice president of the United States – the first woman, the first person of South Asian descent, and the first African American to do so. Harris will also become the first vice president to have graduated from a historically Black college or university.
Each of these achievements is significant in its own right. However, the vice presidency itself has traditionally been a relatively insignificant position, though the office has become more influential in recent years.
The ‘Most Insignificant’ Office?
Normally, ties are rare, but the vice president’s power to break them will likely become relevant to Harris as Democrats, and independents who caucus with Democrats, are expected to control only 50 of the 100 Senate seats.
The beginning of Article II, Section 1 explains how vice presidents are elected, which was later revised by the . The end of that section states that presidential power “” in the event of the president’s “Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office.” Finally, Article II, Section 4 states that vice presidents – like presidents – can be “ on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
John Adams, the first US vice president, once complained to his wife that the vice presidency was “ that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.” However, not all have been upset about such inactivity. Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, : “I don’t want to work … [but] I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”
The Evolution of the Vice Presidency
Wilson’s successor as president, Warren Harding, had unconventional views about the importance of the role of the vice president. He thought that “,” and he wished for his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, “to be a helpful part” of his administration. Coolidge later became the in history to attend Cabinet meetings on a regular basis.
For the 1960 presidential election, two-term Vice President Richard Nixon faced off against John F. Kennedy. At one point during the campaign, reporters asked then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Can you think of a major contribution that Nixon has made to your administration?” Eisenhower replied: “.” Nixon lost that election.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked Walter Mondale as his running mate. In a memo sent to Carter after winning the election, Mondale argued that “[t]he has been the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or often what others want him to hear.” Mondale’s vision for the role of vice president was “to offer impartial advice” so that Carter wouldn’t be “shielded from points of view that [he] should hear.” and subsequently made Mondale an integral part of his inner circle.
Many vice presidents since Mondale have often offered points of view that didn’t align with that of the president.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore, for instance, over the amount of power and influence entrusted to first lady Hillary Clinton; they also over the handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. George W Bush and Dick Cheney , at times, over Iraq, as well as the use and nonuse of .
The ‘Last Voice in the Room’
As Harris begins her trailblazing term as a vice president of many firsts, she has an opportunity to either follow the past as a vice president who is largely ignored, to follow Pence as a deferential foot soldier, or to pick up Mondale’s mantle by making sure that the president isn’t shielded from points of view that he should hear.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)