What Does The Vice President Do? (Duties And Powers)

Learn about the duties of the Vice President, how the role has evolved over the years, and how the current Vice President, Kamala Harris, could handle it.
Senator Kamala Harris (Official Senate Photo)

Senator Kamala Harris (Official Senate Photo)

Updated January 20, 2021

What is the role of the Vice President of the United States?

The Vice President of the United States is second in the presidential line of succession and the President fo the Senate. This means they operate within both the executive and legislative branches of government. Their role is largely dependent on the President, having been both powerful and weak depending on who is in power.

The Vice President has only two constitutionally mandated duties. Article I Section 3 states that the Vice President “shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be evenly divided”, meaning the Vice President will break ties in the Senate. Some Vice Presidents are called to perform this tie-breaking duty often while others are never needed for this function. John C. Calhoun holds the record for breaking the most ties, 31. Most of the tie-breaking votes have been on legislative concerns, and some votes have been for the election of Senate officers or committee selection.

Article II, Section 1 of the constitution states the other duty of the Vice President, which concerns elections in that they receive from the individual states their electoral votes and open the certificates “in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives,” to arrive at a total. Some Vice Presidents are lucky enough to announce their own election to the presidency. Many more find themselves announcing the election of their competitor.

The position can vary greatly depending on the skills and personality of the person holding the title. In the early days of the Senate, Vice Presidents exerted much more power over the legislative body if they chose to be more involved. Currently, the office of Vice President is more of an Executive Branch function with the Vice President only presiding over the Senate to break ties or on ceremonial occasions.

The Vice President is also required to take over the responsibilities and power of the Presidency should the President become unable to continue for some reason. The Constitution was very vague about the succession of power, stating only that Presidential duties should “devolve on the Vice President.” The adoption of the 25th Amendment in 1967 clarified those duties. The amendment specifies a succession plan for the Presidency and Vice Presidency and spells out that the Vice President will become acting President when the President is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

How does one become Vice President?

A Presidential candidate chooses their own Vice Presidential running mate. A person could also be appointed to the Vice Presidency to fill a vacancy, but the selection is subject to the approval of the House and Senate.

The very first elections for President had the state electors voting for two people, requiring one vote to be for a person not from his own state. The person with the most votes became President, and the runner up became Vice President. After a tie and a lengthy stalemate in the 1800 election in which the House of Representatives had to choose the President, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was passed where electors cast separate ballots for President and Vice President.

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What are the most important powers of the Vice President?

One of the most important powers of the Vice President is the duty to preside over the Senate. While the Vice President does not get a vote, except in the event of a tie, they can preside over debate and overseeing operations. While some Vice Presidents have found this role boring and not worth their time allowing the Senate President Pro Tempore to fulfill those duties, others have participated in the Senate to the fullest.

The Vice President can also have powerful duties ceded to them by the President, if their goals are in alignment and the President is confident of the Vice President’s abilities. Some of these duties might be serving on special task forces or committees, engaging in goodwill missions, attending ceremonies and celebrations, and dispensing advice to the President. A Vice President can obtain as much power as the President is willing to hand over to them.

While not common, a Vice President may have great power of the Presidency, should the president resign or die while in office, or if the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet determine that the President is no longer able to discharge his duties due to mental unfitness.

Is the Vice President part of the cabinet?

The Vice President serves in the President’s Cabinet, along with the heads of the 15 executive departments, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General. The Cabinet’s role is to advise the President, though he can accept or discard information at his will. If the Vice President and President have a good rapport, the power of the Vice President is enhanced.

Who is the current Vice President?

Kamala Harris is the current Vice President of the United States serving with President Joe Biden. She made history when she was elected Vice President on November 3, 2020 and sworn in on January 20, 2021. Harris is the first female, Black, and Asian American Vice President in American history. Prior to becoming Vice President, Harris was the US Senator from California from 2017-2021 and the Attorney General of California before that.

Harris has been presented as an equal partner to Joe Biden during the 2020 campaign and will likely have a hands-on approach to her role with a widespread agenda. You can learn more about her record by reading our guide.

History Of The Vice Presidency

The framers of the Constitution understood the importance of a successor to the Presidency, and several states already had provisions for succession in their state government. The first function of the Vice President was to take over for the President in the event he resigned, became disabled, or died.

The first Vice Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, shaped the office, though for much of the 1800s, the office depended much more on the personality of the occupant than on the enumerated duties. Adams took an extremely active role in the Senate, while Jefferson displayed a hands-off approach to the role. Some Vice Presidents exerted tremendous control in the Senate, but used the power fairly while others attempted to sway the Senate to further the President’s agenda. Others had either little inclination or skill to preside over the Senate and either performed the job poorly, unable to maintain order or left the position entirely to the Senate President Pro Tempore.

During the 1900s, the position evolved to encompass more of the Executive Branch duties, leaving the Senatorial duties to either tie-breaking votes or ceremonial events. As the role grew in this direction more, the President began to take more notice of his running mate, though party leaders chose the running mate, not the Presidential Candidate, leading to some contentious working relationships when the President and Vice President did not get along. Later, as presidential candidates began to choose their own running mates, personality and compatibility with the President became more important.

Dick Cheney, Vice President to George W. Bush, exerted an unusual amount of influence in office. Cheney quickly took over the daily managerial duties of the presidency. He was responsible for creating policy and strategy after Bush made a decision, with Cheney pushing his preferred outcomes and policies, such as the war in the middle east. This was widely seen as expanding the power of the Vice Presidency and both parties rejected this overreaching model in the 2008 presidential election.

Today, Vice Presidents assist the President during the campaign, and then also play a prominent role in the administration. They assist the President with duties as assigned and according to their strengths, knowledge, and abilities. They must still be able to take over all presidential duties should the President become incapacitated.

List Of US Vice Presidents

  • John Adams, Federalist 1789-1797
  • Thomas Jefferson, Republican 1797-1801
  • Aaron Burr, Republican 1801-1805
  • George Clinton, Republican 1805-1812
  • Elbridge Gerry, Republican 1813-1814
  • Daniel D. Tompkins, Republican 1817-1825
  • John C. Calhoun, National Republican 1825-1832
  • Martin Van Buren, Democrat 1833-1837
  • Richard Mentor Johnson, Democrat 1837-1841
  • John Tyler, Democrat 1841
  • George Mifflin Dallas, Democrat 1845-1849
  • Millard Fillmore, Whig 1849-1850
  • William Rufus King, Democrat 1853
  • John C. Breckinridge, Democrat 1857-1861
  • Hannibal Hamlin, Republican 1861-1865
  • Andrew Johnson, Democrat 1865
  • Schuyler Colfax, Republican 1869-1873
  • Henry Wilson, Republican 1873-1875
  • William A. Wheeler, Republican 1877-1881
  • Chester A. Arthur, Republican 1881
  • Thomas A. Hendricks, Democrat 1885
  • Levi P. Morton, Republican 1889-1893
  • Adlai E. Stevenson, Democrat 1893-1897
  • Garret A. Hobart, Republican 1897-1899
  • Theodore Roosevelt, Republican 1901
  • Charles W. Fairbanks, Republican, 1905-1909
  • James S. Sherman, Republican 1909-1912
  • Thomas R. Marshall, Democrat 1913-1921
  • Calvin Coolidge, Republican 1921-1923
  • Charles G. Dawes, Republican 1925-1929
  • Charles Curtis, Republican 1929-1933
  • John Nance Garner, Democrat 1933-1941
  • Henry A. Wallace, Democrat 1941-1945
  • Harry S. Truman, Democrat 1945
  • Alben W. Barkley, Democrat 1949-1953
  • Richard M. Nixon, Republican 1953-1961
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat 1961-1963
  • Hubert H. Humphrey, Democrat 1965-1969
  • Spiro T. Agnew, Republican 1969-1973
  • Gerald R. Ford, Republican 1973-1974
  • Nelson A. Rockefeller, Republican 1974-1977
  • Walter F. Mondale, Democrat 1977-1981
  • George H. W. Bush, Republican 1981-1989
  • J. Danforth Quayle, Republican 1989-1993
  • Albert A. Gore, Jr., Democrat 1993-2001
  • Richard B. Cheney, Republican 2001-2009
  • Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Democrat 2009-2017
  • Michael R. Pence, Republican 2017-2021
  • Kamala D. Harris, Democrat 2021-Present

The Rantt Rundown

The role of Vice President is a complex one that can be as large or as small as the President allows. The Vice President has several official duties, tie-breaking Senate votes, counting electoral votes, and assuming the role of President should they die or resign from office. Evolving over two centuries, the position can be a powerful one if the President is confident in the Vice President’s abilities, or the position can be diminished if confidence or knowledge are lacking.

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Rantt 101 // Executive Branch / Kamala Harris / Vice President