Vice President Cheney's accidental shooting of Harry Whittington has, naturally, opened up all sorts of debate regarding the power the Vice President wields in the current Administration. We are being treated to endless disquisitions on the outsized influence that the Vice President possesses, his penchant for "secrecy" his supposed unaccountability, and so on. And all of these disquisitions appear to carry an underlying argument; one that calls for the power of the Vice Presidency to be significantly reduced. An excellent example of this phenomenon is this Newsweek story, which refers to "the unusual nature of Cheney's power," calls him "by far the most powerful vice president in history, and one of the most secretive and mysterious public officials to ever hold such high office in America," and points out that Cheney is "caricatured as a Darth Vader, spooky, above the law; nefarious." The implication that Dick Cheney's power—and the power of future Vice Presidents—must be curtailed naturally follows from this and other descriptions in the article.
I realize that this debate will become hopelessly muddled in a partisan slugfest given that a specific personality is identified with the office of the Vice Presidency. So let's pretend for a moment that we are not discussing Vice President Cheney, but rather a fictitious Vice President Jones. Make Vice President Jones a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent in your own mind as you read this article—it should not affect my argument or the conclusions that follow from it a jot.
If we assume that Vice President Jones serves in a political environment much like the current one then it is safe to say that both he/she and a fictitious President Smith (also of whatever party suits your fancy) are deeply concerned about terrorism. Given the nature of the September 11th terrorist attacks and their apparent attempt to decapitate the United States government by aiming Flight 93 at either the White House or the Capitol Building, both President Smith and Vice President Jones will specifically be concerned about the line of succession to the Presidency and how the integrity of the line of succession will be maintained in the event of another catastrophic terrorist attack.
Part of maintaining that line of integrity is not only ensuring the orderly transition from a President to a Vice President in the event of the President's incapacity, but also ensuring that the Vice President is fully prepared to take over the duties of the Presidency on a moment's notice. An orderly transition depends quite strongly on the Vice President being able to seamlessly assume the responsibilities of the Presidency and that entails having the Vice President fully briefed and heavily involved in just about every aspect of the decision-making and deliberations regarding the policies of the Administration in which the Vice President serves.
So to return to the case of Vice President Jones, we want to make sure that he/she is entirely up to speed regarding the implementation of specific aspects of foreign and national security policy. We want to make sure that Vice President Jones is getting his/her elbows dirty in setting budgetary priorities. We want to make sure that Vice President Jones is completely conversant with the work of the Department of Homeland Security, especially given the key role the Department would play in any terrorist attack.
Of course, even in the absence of any terrorist threat, we would hope that the job of Vice President Jones would not merely entail "presiding over the Senate and checking the obituaries for reports on the President's health," as one wag famously described the job of the Vice President. We would hope that the position of Vice President would carry with it real power with real responsibility. And that power would stem—as I have written above—from having the Vice President involved in every key aspect of decision-making and policy-making engaged in by the Administration. This isn't a call for a co-Presidency; the Constitution and various court rulings make clear the power of the Presidency and I am not seeking to have that power circumscribed in any way. Rather, it entails having a Vice President who is a full partner, not just someone who is shunted aside to head up special projects of no real or lasting significance, or a glorified flunky one sends to innumerable funerals around the world. Even if we do not face some specific danger that seeks—among other things—to decapitate our government, any Presidency must be concerned with freakish events that might necessitate the Vice President's ascension into the top job. In a day and age when we do face such a danger, the ability of a Vice President to exercise the duties attendant to the office of the Presidency without having to learn on the job becomes all the more important.
It was Vice President John Nance Garner who famously said that the office he occupied was "not worth a pitcher of warm spit." It was a funny comment when made but its humor quotient went down significantly when the President Garner served—Franklin Delano Roosevelt—died suddenly in office and Garner's successor—Harry Truman—was forced to assume the Presidency without any knowledge of key Administration initiatives during the most terrible war to afflict humankind, including the Manhattan Project. Things ultimately worked out fine with President Truman, but his example showed the foolishness of keeping a Vice President powerless and in the dark. Nowadays, with top government officials—including those in the line of succession—in the crosshairs of terrorists—keeping a Vice President powerless and in the dark is not only foolish. It is a national security liability of immense proportions.