Advice and Consent…for VPs and Presidential Spouses

I am not a lawyer, nor a constitutional scholar, nor anything more than a dilettante historian, but I have an idea that we need to correct a problem that has plagued the governance of this nation since at least 1992:  The elevation of the roles of the Vice President and the First Lady to policymaking and governing roles.  

I don’t think a situation like this was ever contemplated by Founding Fathers.

In the future, beginning with the next administration, I propose that if a president wishes to designate their vice president or their spouse to fulfill a functional role, they must obtain Senate confirmation for their service in that capacity.  The Senate would also hold the same power to demand their presence at legislative oversight hearings, with questioning confined to the area in which the Senate has accorded them authority.  

Why do I want this?  

There has been a whiff of royalty, dynasty and cronyism in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.   I think part of this sense comes from the secretive yet decisive roles played respectively by Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney.  There used to be an expression: FOH, for Friend of Hillary.  There are Friends of Dick, too, most suspiciously government contractors that have profited from the war. 

Being a special friend of the First Lady/Gentleman or the VP shouldn’t matter so much. 

The involvement of First Lady Hillary Clinton in the health care initiative, as well as her service as a de facto legal counsel to the president contributed to many of that administration’s lowest points.   She also had a hand in picking some of his cabinet members — who turned out to be the most problematic picks, including AG Janet Reno. 

President Clinton also assigned more authority to his VP, Al Gore, most notably putting him in charge of the “reinventing government” initiative.  Unlike Hillary, Gore handled his extra assignments skillfully and without controversy.  However, Gore’s expanded role — which Clinton bragged about — was the slippery slope that has led us directly to the “undisclosed” Dick Cheney.

Under George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney has truly unprecedented power, as the Lewis Libby case reminded us.   Bush himself has compared Cheney to a “chief operating officer” of a corporation — a stunning assignment of power to an office that throughout history has been circumscribed to presiding over (and breaking ties in) the Senate, standing by in case the president should become incapacitated or die, and serving as a spokesman and advocate on the political hustings.  Bush has given Cheney the power to classify documents and perhaps to declassify them. His influence over military policy, foreign policy and the debates over the legality of torture has been decisive.  Compared with Gore, Cheney has much more power.  Compared with every vice-president before Gore, it’s off the charts.

If a future president wants his or her VP to serve as COO, Congress should have a say.

As the 2008 election approaches, we have as one of the leading candidates Hillary Clinton herself, who would take office with an ex-President (barred by the Constitution from serving in that role again) as First Gentleman.  Think Bill’s going to spend a lot of time advocating that parents read to their kids?  If she wins, I want a high degree of transparency applied to his office.  Among the other candidates, John Edwards’ wife Elizabeth, an attorney, is known to have a big influence on their campaign, and might believe she is qualified to play a Hillary-like role. If so, I want to know all about it, and I want Congress to have oversight.  

The Cheney precedent is the most worrisome, however.  Cheney has set a new standard for vice-presidential power, which you have to assume every future vice-president will demand be equalled as the price of his or her joining the ticket.  The days when a candidate like John F. Kennedy could recruit a powerful figure like Sen. Lyndon Johnson to run on his ticket for geographical balance — and then ignore him once elected — are over.  Future VPs will expect to be COOs, or something equally impressive, just like Dick.  Their egos will require no less.

Based on the evidence of the past 15 years, it’s pretty clear that co-presidencies don’t work.  You could say the sample size is too small, that Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney were unusually polarizing figures, unrepresentative of future First Spouses and Vice Presidents.  But I would argue the reverse:  Ms. Clinton and Cheney were controversial because their power was so immense, yet amorphous.  They were the unseen hands. And they were protected by Executive Privilege.

This has to stop.  The president’s spouse and the vice president should be go back to their traditional roles and stay there.  In 2008, I have no interest in what Hillary described in 1992 as “two for one.”  I just want one.  I shudder to think where this co-presidency trend is going. If it takes a constitutional amendment, let’s do it.  I can’t think of a better issue for the current Congress to take up.  

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