Tie-breaking Pence

Mike Pence cast a historic vote just over two weeks into Trump’s presidency – he cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to confirm a cabinet nominee. Whilst VP Biden never had to exercise this constitutional power in his eight years, it is not uncommon for a VP to have to (see the NYTimes article). However it has never been done before to confirm a cabinet nominee. This is great for almost all Unit 3 and 4 essays.

Firstly, it demonstrates the importance a VP can have. In this case, it allowed the Trump administration to continue filling the cabinet, something they have been struggling to do with Congress only slowly confirming nominees (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/senate-outlook-battles-threats-nuclear-options-234622). In the event of a 50-50 tie in the Senate, the VP can break the deadlock and is likely to do so in favour of the President; in this case Pence’s vote confirmed De Vos as Education Secretary.

It is also a useful example when examining factors that a President may consider when nominating someone. Democrats’ have accused De Vos of having no educational experience which is usually a key factor a President will look at when nominating; she has however been a considerable donor to the Republican Party which makes her a good example of other considerations a President might have in filling these posts.

Equally, the role of the Congress and the Constitution is crucial in this example. Congress have the right to approve or reject nominees, but this remains a reactive power – they can only act once the President has nominated. The role of Congress and their ability to act is frequently criticised due to the slow nature of what they do – in this case the Democrats staged a 24-hour walk out in order to try and persuade just one more Republican to vote against De Vos, and avoid the need for Pence to cast a tie-breaker. This suggests the role of parties within Congress remains a prominent one and is clearly one of the factors that Congressmen consider when voting. Additionally, the role of Congress in scrutinising nominees is important here, as it was in the committee hearing where some of the key concerns over her capability to do the job became clear:

“In perhaps the most uncomfortable moment, she struggled to show she was familiar with the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act (Idea), a federal law that requires public schools to make accommodations for disabled students.” (BBC article above)

Further to this, two pressure groups have expressed concern over her capabilities which is excellent evidence for Unit 3 when looking at how pressure groups in the US operate and how they can influence, or at least try to influence, the outcome of these nominations.

On the other hand, it is clearly not the only factor – two Republicans voted against De Vos. this would be great when writing a Unit 3 essay about party factions and ideology as these Senators are both more centrist within their party (Collins and Murkowski) and suggest other factors may have influenced their vote. Equally, the fact that Congress is slow slow at confirming Trump’s nominees, despite his rhetoric and tweeting, suggests Congress do have power to exercise, even over a newly elected President.

Finally, as this is the first time in history that this kind of tie-breaking vote has been cast, students should be wary of placing too much emphasis on it. It does of course show the power that a VP can have, but as this has been exercised just once during a cabinet nominee vote (in over 200 years!) this suggests that it, at least in terms of frequency, it is not an important power for the VP. This kind of analysis, putting an event into a wider context, is crucial for A02 marks and for students aiming to gain Level 3 in 15 and 45 mark questions. Equally, the number of topics from which A01 knowledge is needed in order to understand this example is a good example of how the ‘synoptic’ (A02S – worth 12 marks in a 45 marker) element of the exam works.