Vice President of the United States: Duties and Details

Serving in Obscurity or Vital Work Behind the Scenes?

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence meeting with S. Korean officials
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence Visits S. Korea. Getty Images News Pool


Sometimes, the Vice President of the United States is remembered more for things they say wrong, than for things they do right.

"If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30% chance we're going to get it wrong," said Vice President Joe Biden. Or as Vice President Dan Quayle put it, "If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure."

Thomas R. Marshall, 28th Vice President, said of his office, "Once there were two brothers.

One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was heard of either of them again."

But all verbal gaffes and disparaging remarks aside, the vice president remains our second highest federal government official and a single heartbeat away from ascending to the presidency.

Electing the Vice President

The office of Vice President of the United States is established along with the office of President of the United States in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which also creates and designates the Electoral College system as the method by which both offices are to be elected.

Before enactment of the 12th Amendment in 1804, there were no separately nominated candidates for vice president. Instead, as required by Article II, Section 1, the presidential candidate receiving the second-highest number of electoral votes was awarded the vice presidency. In essence, the vice presidency was treated as a consolation prize.



It took only three elections for the weakness of that system of choosing the vice president to become obvious. In the 1796 election, Founding Fathers and bitter political rivals John Adams - a Federalist - and Thomas Jefferson - a Republican - ended up as president and vice president. To say the least, the two did not play well together.



Fortunately, the government of then was quicker to fix its mistakes than the government of now, so by 1804, the 12th Amendment had revised the electoral process so that candidates ran specifically for either president or vice president. Today, when you vote for a presidential candidate, you are also voting for his or her vice presidential running mate.

Unlike the president, there is no constitutional limitation on the number of times a person can be elected vice president. However, constitutional scholars and lawyers disagree whether a twice-elected former president can be elected vice president. Since no former presidents have ever tried running for vice president, the issue has never been tested in court.

Qualifications to Serve

The 12th Amendment also specifies that the qualifications required to serve as vice president are the same as those required to serve as president, which are briefly: be a natural born U.S. citizen; be at least 35 years old; and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years.

"My mother believed and my father believed that if I wanted to be President of the United States, I could be, I could be Vice President!" said Vice President Joe Biden.

Duties and Responsibilities of the Vice President

Having been kept in the dark about the existence of the atomic bomb by President Roosevelt, Vice President Harry Truman, after taking over as president, remarked that the vice president's job is to "go to weddings and funerals."

However, the vice president does have some significant responsibilities and duties.

A Heartbeat from the Presidency

Certainly the responsibility most on the mind of vice presidents is that under the order of presidential succession, they are required to take over the duties of the President of the United States at any time the president becomes, for any reason, unable to serve, including death, resignation, impeachment, or physical incapacitation.

As Vice President Dan Quayle said, "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is 'to be prepared.'"

President of the Senate

Under Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate and is allowed to vote on legislation when necessary to break a tie. While the Senate's supermajority vote rules have reduced the impact of this power, the vice president can still influence legislation.

As president of the Senate, the vice president is assigned by the 12th Amendment to preside over the joint session of Congress in which the votes of the Electoral College are counted and reported. In this capacity, three vice presidents -- John Breckinridge, Richard Nixon and Al Gore -- have had the distasteful duty of announcing that they had lost the presidential election.

On the brighter side, four vice presidents -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H. W. Bush - were able to announce that they had been elected president.

Despite the vice president's constitutionally assigned status in the Senate, the office is generally considered to be a part of the Executive Branch, rather than the Legislative Branch of the government.

Informal and Political Duties

While certainly not required by the Constitution, which wisely includes no mention of "politics," the vice president is traditionally expected to support and advance the policies and legislative agenda of the president.

For example, the vice president might be called on by the president to draft legislation favored by the administration and "talk it up" in an effort to gain the support of members of Congress. The vice president might then be asked to help shepherd the bill through the legislative process.

The vice president typically attends all Presidential Cabinet meetings and may be called on to act as an adviser the president on a wide variety of issues.

The vice president might "stand in" for the president at meetings with foreign leaders or state funerals abroad. In addition, the vice president sometime represents the president in showing the administration's concern at sites of natural disasters.

Stepping Stone to the Presidency?

Serving as vice president is sometimes considered a political stepping stone to being elected president. History, however, shows that of the 14 vice presidents who became president, 8 did so because of the death of the sitting president.

The likelihood that a vice president will run for and be elected to the presidency depends largely on his or her own political aspirations and energy, and the success and popularity of the president with which he or she served.

A vice president who served under a successful and popular president is likely to be seen by the public as a party-loyal sidekick, worthy of advancement. On the other hand, a vice president who served under a failed and unpopular president may be considered as more of a willing accomplice, worthy only of being put out to pasture.