Some in the media (or at least Keith Olbermann at MSNBC) are ridiculing Sarah Palin’s recent answer to a third-grader’s question of “What does the Vice President do?” The part of her response that seems to have people in a tizzy is the following: “[A] Vice President has a really great job, because not only are they there to support the President agenda, they’re like a team member, the teammate to that President. But also, they’re in charge of the United States Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the Senators and make a lot of good policy changes… ” (emphasis added). Haha, Ms. Caribou Barbie Palin, the wags chortle, don’t you know that the Vice President is only mentioned four times in the Constitution (two of which mentions are in later amendments) and has no power but to break ties in the Senate?
Well, that’s right, except it’s not. While true that the only formal power the Constitution (specifically Article I, Section 3) gives the VP is to cast the deciding vote when the Senate is deadlocked, the Constitution is understandably silent as to what else the VP can do with his or her time. Yet nobody would deny that Dick Cheney has been an extremely powerful figure, and not because of any explicit powers but because he has aggressively pushed the Bush Administration’s agenda and lobbied senators (particularly Republicans). So sure, the VP can have a big effect on policy.
Moreover, the VP is the “President of the Senate,” which is sort of like being in charge – if indeed anyone is in charge of that motley group of wannabe presidents. This isn’t “in charge” the way a president or CEO is “in charge” – the VP can’t fire senators or force them to vote a given way or veto their bills – but I don’t think anyone can reasonably construe Palin’s comments to imply that. The most reasonable construction is that she was trying to explain in her own words what being “President of the Senate” means, and could’ve done a lot worse than characterizing it as being “in charge.”
You can read more on this issue in this CBS News posting, which further quotes my thoughts on the matter.