Bench Memos

George Will’s “Faux” Constitution

For 30 years, I read George Will to see a smart conservative constructing smart arguments.  Now that he’s a man reduced to three or four itches he can’t help scratching, I usually skip him.  Had I only read the lead of his column yesterday, I’d have moved on without reading the rest, but a friend writes me to say I should read on.  And lo, it turns out that Will has borrowed Joe Biden’s copy of the Constitution:

Did McCain, who seems to think that Palin’s never having attended a “Georgetown cocktail party” is sufficient qualification for the vice presidency, lift an eyebrow when she said that vice presidents “are in charge of the United States Senate”?

She may have been tailoring her narrative to her audience of third-graders, who do not know that vice presidents have no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes. . . .

And so on.  Yes, Sarah Palin was talking to third-graders.  Eight-year-olds asking “what does the vice president do?” might have been a bit confused if Gov. Palin had answered, in the language of Article I, section 3, that “the Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”  “What?” the urchins would ask, “we thought there was only one president, and he’s in the White House!”  Well, kids, you see, the vice president is the presiding officer of the Senate.  “What’s that?  What does ‘presiding’ mean?”  Um, you know, the vice president sits in the chair of the Senate and has the gavel.  “Don’t they all get to sit down in their own chairs?  And what’s a gavel?  Wait a minute, isn’t that the wooden hammer a judge whacks his desk with?  But we asked what the VICE PRESIDENT does!!”  Okay, you little &%#*s, here’s the deal: the vice president is IN CHARGE OF the Senate.  Got it?  “Oh, well, why didn’t you say that in the first place?!”

Sarah Palin has five children ranging in age from nineteen to an infant.  Willow is 13 and Piper is 7.  I think she knows how to talk to eight-year-olds in a way they understand.  And it helps that she was–how to put this so Mr. Will understands?–exactly right.  The Senate is famously a place where no one is “in charge” in any substantive respect.  But formally, being the presiding officer is about as close to “in charge” as anyone gets. 

But Will, in a fit of Bidenism, avers that the vice president has “no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes.”  Really?  Can someone at Netflix move up Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on George Will’s rental list?  (Pay particular attention to Harry Carey.)  Or send him a copy of the Constitution in which Article I, section 3, clause 4 isn’t bowdlerized to begin right after the word “but”?

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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