Sunday, December 30, 2007

John Adams's Salary as Vice President

As I noted in the last post, the Constitution specifically referred to the president's receipt of a salary. But it said nothing about whether Congress should grant a salary to the Vice President. In some ways, the discussion in the House about the Vice President's salary was even more interesting than the discussion about the President's.

The committee report proposed an annual salary for the Vice President of $5,000. Alexander White of Virginia immediately attacked it. Some of his arguments implicated the very nature of the office -- was it an executive position or a legislative one? -- and resonate to this very day (witness the recent controversy over whether Dick Cheney is a member of the Executive Branch):
I do not like the principle on which this provision is made for the Vice President; there is nothing, I believe, in the constitution which gives him a right to an annual sum; it fixes no duty upon his as Vice President, requiring a constant attendance. He may be called upon to act as President, and then I would give him the salary of the President; at other times, he is to preside as President of the Senate, then I would pay him for his services in that character [on a per diem basis].

Joshua Seney of Maryland later amplified on Rep. White's remarks, making clear that he regarded the Vice President as principally a "member[] of the legislature" (emphasis added):
No argument has been adduced to convince me that the Vice President ought to receive an allowance any more than the other members of the legislature. He cannot be compelled to perform any duty.

Even the representatives who argued for a fixed salary did not go so far as to say that the vice president would be performing executive functions. Instead, the core of their arguments was that the vice president was renouncing other potential opportunities because he had to stand ready to do so. Here is James Madison:
The nature of the office will require that the Vice President shall always be in readiness to render that service which contingencies may require . . .. If we consider that the Vice President may be taken from the extremity of the continent, and be from the nature of his office obliged to reside at or within the convenient reach of the seat of the Government, to take upon him the exercise of the President's functions, in case of any accident that may deprive the Union of the services of their first officer, we must see, I think, it will often happen that he will be obliged to be constantly at the seat of Government.

Fisher Ames of Massachusetts returned to the theme that democratic principles required adequate pay for government officers:
Every man is eligible, by the constitution, to be chosen to this office; but if a competent support is not allowed, the choice will be confined to opulent characters. This is an aristocratic idea, and contravenes the spirit of the constitution.

The best line of the debate, however, went to John Page of Virginia, for his backhanded slap at the uselessness of the office. I wonder what James Madison thought when he heard Page coyly observe:
As to the utility of the office, [Mr. Page] had nothing to say. He had no hand in forming the constitution; if he had, perhaps he should never have thought of such an officer; but as we have got him, we must maintain him . . ..

In the end, the House rejected both Rep. White's motion to pay the vice president on a per diem basis, as well as Rep. Page's motion to increase his annual salary to $8,000. The bill as enacted awarded the vice president an annual salary of $5,000, payable quarterly.

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