Stanford Levinson’s Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions mentions the issue that the US constitution doesn’t actually give the vice president a job, aside from the tie-breaking vote in the Senate (which super-majority rules have made all the more pointless). This has led Dick Cheney to argue that the VP is, technically, more like a member of the Legislative branch than the Executive branch. Also, it’s an appointed position, effectively. Yes, we vote for a president+vice-presidential ticket, but we can safely say that no one casts their vote primarily because they believe the VP candidate will be the best man for that job, while being less certain about the presidential candidate.
That raises the further issue that if the president dies, the people are stuck with what amounts to a political appointee for president rather than someone the people actually endorse. Furthermore, in The Federalist papers, Madison predicted (at a time when the VP position went to the runner-up in the presidential election) that if the VP post were an appointed one it would tend to go to to someone that scores political points rather than someone that is simply deemed highly qualified for chief executive. He was right. Since the constitution was amended to make the VP a choice of the president rather than a likely adversary, the VP job has gone to people that are seen to “round out” the president’s weaknesses in this or that faction’s view: a northerner picks a southerner, a former governor picks a member of congress, etc.
Is this the best we can do?
No. We can do a lot better. I suggest the simple revision of doing what many states do with their Lieutenant Governor positions: make the VP a separately elected position. It will tend to go to someone the presidential candidate will still get along with, but it will be more likely to also be someone the electorate endorses as a viable replacement.
And while we’re at it, give the VP a real job. Since most people like the idea of Line-Item Veto, and since the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional on a balance-of-powers basis, and since Dick Cheney thinks the VP is functionally a member of the legislative branch, and since the real purpose of a line-item veto is to clean up the junk in bills that benefits individual legislators, districts, or states and so requires a certain kind of independence from the actual legislators as well as the decisiveness of a singular executive… Let the VP be the person that does line-item vetoes. The VP more or less independently decides what line/items to veto or edit an amount (within reason: say, +/- 50% of dollar values), and passes it to the president. The president can sign the result or negotiate for changes in the line-item vetoes from the VP, including asking the VP to make additional line-item vetoes. If they come to an agreement, the president signs. If not, the president vetoes the whole thing. If Congress doesn’t like either result, they can opt to do a veto override with the usual 2/3rds majority requirement, or draft a revised bill that addresses the concerns of the VP and/or president.
This solution addresses the concerns of all camps. It isn’t perfect, and an ornery VP will certainly be in a position for mischief, but both the President and the Congress (and, eventually, the Judiciary) are in a position to check that mischief. A noble VP, however, can use the office to clean up the embedded self-interest our legislators have continually shown to be beyond their power to constrain. In effect, the VP office can be transformed into a kind of legislative Comptroller – and we could probably think of other duties for the VP office to take on as well that would enhance that charge. It’s a nice idea and seems to push us a little further in the way of functional improvements to our broken system of governance. It’s not the only change we need to make, but it’s just one in a series to refine what The Framers produced: which, after all, is what they really intended us to do in the first place.