Incitatus kicks over the traces

Palin flunks basic civics.

Everyone is having a good time laughing at the $150,000 Hockey Mom for misunderstanding basic civics:

A vice president has a really great job, because not only are they there to support the president’s agenda, they’re like the team member, the team mate 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 that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom. And it’s a great job and I look forward to having that job.

Of course, aside from presiding on ceremonial occasions and showing up to cast tie-breaking votes, the Vice President’s role as President of the Senate is entirely nominal. The Vice President does not help write legislation or determine the flow of Senate business. (LBJ thought that he could, as Vice President, continue to exert some of the influence he had accumulated as Majority Leader, but the Senate barons politely showed him the door.) It’s either funny or scary that John McCain chose a running-mate with such a vague idea about the actual operations of the legislative process.

However, liberals being liberals, and intellectuals being intellectuals, Brad DeLong raises a question: couldn’t a Vice President, admittedly in contravention of custom, exercise the powers of a presiding officer to choose whom to recognize to speak or make motions, and to make parliamentary rulings even in defiance of the Parliamentarian’s advice?

It seems to me that the clear answer is “No,” unless a majority of the Senate wanted to go along.

The Constitution makes the Vice President the President of the Senate. But what powers the President of the Senate wields (except for the tie-breaking vote) depends on the Senate Rules, and the Constitution also provides that each House of Congress makes its own rules.

Given the VP’s Constitutional role as President of the Senate, the Senate rules couldn’t make it that the President Pro Tem presides if the VP is present. However, since the VP has no Constitutional claim to preside over any committee of the Senate, I suppose that the Senate, like the House, could have a Committee of the Whole with different rules than the same body meeting as the Senate proper; for example, those rules could put the President Pro Tem in the chair. And the Senate Rules could certainly establish an order in which Senators were to be recognized, and assign to the Parliamentarian the task of ruling on points of order.

(Could the Vice President, in defiance of the Senate rules, occupy the chair and obstruct business? I suppose so. But that would be a usurpation, not an exercise of Constitutional power.)

So it seems to me that Palin doesn’t have even a colorable claim to have been right. To “preside over” is simply not to “be in charge of.” And the response of Palin’s defenders that she was simplifying for a grade-schooler doesn’t pass the giggle test. What Palin said wasn’t a simplification, it was a flat-out mistake, like thinking that Paris is the capital of Germany.

More to the point than her having been wrong (which happens to all of us), it seems clear that Palin couldn’t participate cogently in a discussion of the question.

“Unqualified”? Masterful understatement.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: