Today we welcome a guest post from Professor Chris Galdieri of St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH. Professor Galdieri teaches the presidency and a course on The New Hampshire primary, as well as other courses on American politics. His research focuses on the interplay between political elites and the mass public. He is also an expert on the television show Veep.
The fifth season of HBO's Veep dealt with the fallout from last season's cliffhanger – a tied Electoral College vote that moved the resolution of a presidential election to the House of Representatives for the first time since 1825, and the prospect of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to install Senator Tom James (Hugh Laurie), the running mate of Democratic President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), as acting president and leave Meyer out in the cold, or, worse, the vice presidency again. In last night's season finale, Veep's tied election was finally resolved. In the previous episode, the House of Representatives failed to choose between Meyer and her Republican rival, Senator Bill O'Brien (Brad Leland), because James convinced House members from three states to abstain, and as a result no candidate received 26 votes. In the season's final episode, the Senate voted to choose a vice president who, we were told, would then become president at noon on inauguration day. When the Senate tied with 50 votes for James and 50 for O'Brien's running mate, Senator Laura Montez (Andrea Savage), Vice President Andrew Doyle (Phil Reeves) cast the deciding vote for Montez. Later we learn that he helped arrange the tie vote in exchange for becoming her Secretary of State. On inauguration day, Montez is sworn in as president and Meyer leaves office.
This is probably not how things would work out even if a scenario similar to the one on the show occurred in real life. Past practice in similar elections was for the House to continue to hold votes in order to ensure that a president was elected by the start of the next presidential term. Of course, watching Veep (or The West Wing, or House of Cards) as a political scientist is a lot like watching Law & Order as a lawyer, or House as a doctor. When a show tells stories set in a field you know well, it's easy to focus on things that don't actually work that way, and ignore the need to keep the story moving along. If you're complaining that no hospital has a half-dozen doctors whose sole duty is to diagnose bizarre medical cases, you should probably go take a walk for an hour and let everyone else enjoy the show.
But for the House to simply give up after one unsuccessful vote for president, and for the nation to embrace a vice president acting as president as the real thing, breaks with precedent so dramatically that it merits further consideration. What might lead such a bizarre situation to take place? The episode provides the answer, but if you blinked you probably missed it. The key lies in a CNN chyron we see in the background of several scenes, which reads "Speaker: House Will Not Vote Again." If Doyle's support for Montez in exchange for the State Department echoes the so-called "corrupt bargain" between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay that ended the 1824 election in Adams' favor, the House's refusal to hold additional votes to try to elect a president echoes (coincidentally, since the episode was likely written long before Justice Antonin Scalia's death) the Senate's current refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In that case, the benefit to Republican Senators is clear: Blocking Garland means there is one less left-of-center vote on the Court. So perhaps we should ask what the benefit is to the House to have Montez acting as president, rather than either Meyer or O'Brien actually holding the office.
Last year on this blog, I wrote about the problems that would face an acting president who tried to act too much like a president. In a nutshell, an acting president who did too much or went too far might find himself or herself provoking the House into finally getting its act together and picking a president. From the perspective of an acting president, this has the makings of a frustrating tenure – any and every possible action runs the risk of an abrupt end to your time in office. But from the perspective of Congress, this could be a wonderful state of affairs. Any time the acting president looks like he or she is about to step across a line, the House can raise the prospect of holding another presidential vote. Making the acting president's continued tenure in office contingent on congressional support would almost guarantee executive compliance with Congress in any area Congress cares about.
There's a good reason the Framers of the constitution rejected the idea of having Congress choose the president; they believed in an energetic and independent executive, not one who would ask himself, before every action, if taking this or that step would prevent Congress from electing him for another term. The setup that appears to be taking place at the end of Veep goes even further; for Acting President Montez, the question is not whether Congress will give her another chance when her term ends, the question is whether she will be sent back down to the vice presidency that evening. Awkward, perhaps, but what we see of Montez indicates that she, like every single other character on Veep, is ambitious, arrogant, and vain enough to prefer being an acting president on a short leash to not being anywhere near the presidency. What do you call a vice president selected by her predecessor when the Senate ties and the House can't pick a president? "Madame President," it seems, at least for a little while.