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According to the Constitution, the Vice President is the head of the Senate, but doesn't really explain what that means except to say that he doesn't get to vote except to break a tie.

Aside from that and being next in the line of succession, what power does the Vice President actually have? Can he set the Senate's agenda and force calls to order in the Senate the way the Speaker can in the House?

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When thinking about political power and influence it is important to distinguish between formal and informal power. While the law explicitly provides some powers, often times the most significant powers are entirely informal (not defined in law).

The Vice Presidency is a position that largely relies on informal power.

Who Runs the Senate?

According to the Senate website, historically the Vice President's major job was presiding over the Senate. Their job included administering the rules of the Senate, casting tie-breaking votes, and overseeing Senate floor meetings. The Vice President's expenses were also funded through legislative appropriation at that time.

This changed in the 1961 when Lyndon B. Johnson moved the Vice President toward an executive-focused role, rather than a legislative one.

Currently the duties of overseeing the Senate are done by the President pro Tempore of the Senate. However, that position is largely viewed as being ceremonial or administrative rather than important, so it is often delegated to junior Senators to help them learn Senate procedure.

So What Does the Vice President Do Now?

As mentioned in Ryathal's answer (and implied in the question) the Vice President doesn't have much Constitutional authority. However, they have a large degree of authority vested in them by the President (see this BusinessInsider article for an interesting discussion). One interesting facet is that because the Vice President is elected, the President can't fire them - unlike other advisors.

Stemming from this position, the Vice President has statutory (but non-Constitutional) roles - such as being a member of the National Security Council.

The Vice President is executive staff, and an advisor without any particular portfolio. So although they aren't vested power by the Constitution, their status as an executive officer, combined with being elected alongside the President, means that informally they are often have significant influence.

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    +1, Other points: (1) The VP's power depends heavily on how much they are trusted by the President. Cheney and Gore wielded great influence behind the scenes; Quayle and Agnew, not so much. (2) Unlike any other Presidential advisor, the VP can't be fired, only impeached. (3) The VP is usually in a very good position to win the party's nomination to succeed a 2-term President, if they wish to run. – Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 24 '18 at 15:14
  • The VP also has a permanent position on the National Security Council. – Tom Jan 25 '18 at 6:29
  • @indigochild VP was added as a permanent member in response to Truman not knowing about the atomic bomb when he took office. It must have been added after 1947. I'll l look for a citation later, but I think I read that at the Heritage Foundation's website. The Wikipedia page just notes "statutory" next to the VP, but doesn't cite a source. – Tom Jan 25 '18 at 14:19
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    @indigochild Here it is: catalog.archives.gov/id/299860. VP was added in 1949 – Tom Jan 25 '18 at 14:31
  • It's worth saying that the Senate makes its own rules, and it has chosen to make rules that give both VP and Pres. pro Tem. very little power compared to House leadership. It could be otherwise. – sondra.kinsey Oct 10 '18 at 18:24
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Actually, the Vice President has enormous power.

There are only two people in the USA who are elected by all 50 states (in a "national election") – the President and the Vice President.

This means that the President cannot fire the Vice President. As both were elected by the people, the VP doesn't work for the President. Each can be removed only through the impeachment process. (See Article 2 Section 4 of the US Constitution)

Traditionally, the person occupying this office has been low key and subservient to the President. But that's done out of loyalty and friendship, not by any constitutional or other legal requirement.

A rogue VP could be disastrous for a sitting President.

The VP commands national media attention, can draw huge crowds and can have a major impact on government, politics, culture, the economy, etc. In fact, he/she is in a strong position to challenge the President on any matter, including the office itself. That's power.

The President, of course, also has leverage. He/She can at any time isolate the Vice President, taking everything from him/her, except that which the President cannot take away – the job itself and the two roles required by the Constitution: President of the Senate and second in line of succession.

The President can also drop the VP as a running mate during a re-election campaign.

But while the Vice President is in office, that person can have huge influence and his/her job is as secure as the President's. So it would be wise for a President to keep the Vice President happy.

  • Could you cite your source, specifically with regards to "This means that the President cannot fire the Vice President." – hszmv Jan 24 '18 at 19:35
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    @hszmv, Article II of the US Constitution. In particular, see Section 4. The VP can only be removed through the impeachment process, just like the President. I updated my answer with a link reference. – Michael_B Jan 24 '18 at 19:54
  • Interesting stuff - Has a VP ever been 'rogue'? – Phlegon_of_Tralles Jan 24 '18 at 21:57
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    @Phlegon_of_Tralles, I would have to look into that. Might be a good subject for a new question. – Michael_B Jan 25 '18 at 1:45
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    @Phlegon_of_Tralles: Ever heard of Aaron Burr? Hamilton and Jefferson were rivals at that point, but I'm pretty sure Jefferson didn't want Hamilton killed. Initially the VP was the runner up in the Electoral College. It was after it became clear that didn't work, the system was changed to have them elected the way they are now. – GreenMatt Jan 25 '18 at 15:07
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The other "enumerated power" is provided by the 25th Amendment (section 4). Vice President, in conjunction with a majority of department secretaries, can declare that the President is unable to discharge powers and duties of his office and temporarily suspend him.

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The vice president is almost entirely a ceremonial position, the major purpose is to become the president at a moment's notice. The president is so important that it's worth it to have a full time back up. There is one other duty the Vice President has, he opens/presents the ballots from the states for presidential elections. Being head of the Senate is essentially something for the Vice President to do while they are waiting.

The vice president does have a lot of soft power, traditionally this was focused on legislative lobbying, but more recently the vice president has become part of the leadership team similar to a cabinet member.

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