Vice President as Presiding Officer

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

Article I, Section 3, Clause 4

Excepting the duty to receive the tally of electoral votes for President, the only regular responsibility assigned to the office of the Vice President by the Constitutional Convention was to preside over the Senate and to cast tie-breaking votes. Because this seemed to give the Vice President some legislative responsibility, George Mason argued during the Convention that this was a violation of the separation of powers, that "it mixed too much" the executive and legislative powers. But Roger Sherman responded: "If the Vice President were not to be President of the Senate, he would be without employment."

Yet it was agreed that allowing the Vice President to preside over the Senate, and to vote in case of a tie, solved two important problems. First, it allowed that body—at all times—to come to a definitive resolution, because the President of the Senate would break tie votes. Second, it preserved the equality of the states in the Senate. Should a Senator be chosen to preside over the body, and should that Senator cast the tie-breaking vote, a state would, in effect, increase its representation. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.

Alternatively, if the Senator as presiding President would be allowed to vote only in case of a tie, a state would end up losing half its representation during normal votes. The Federalist No. 68. There have been over two hundred occasions when the Vice President has had to cast a tie-breaking vote, but most occurred early in the history of the Republic. In fact, the first Vice President, John Adams, cast the highest number of such votes.

Early in the Republic the Vice President took seriously his constitutional duty of presiding over the Senate, and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did much to shape the presider's role. Rarely, however, does the Vice President sit in modern times. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate is the formal substitute, but normally a junior member of the Senate is assigned to sit in the chair. Instead, under the broad discretion the Constitution leaves to each branch to develop its own structure, the political influence of Vice Presidents in the executive branch has increased as modern Presidents have delegated many functions to their Vice Presidents.

Profile photo of Peter W. Schramm
Peter W. Schramm
Professor of Political Science
Executive Director, John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
Ashland University