First Thursday in July

There has been a trend over the past couple of decades to normalize holidays to certain more convenient days of the week, generally a Monday or Friday, so that workers can have three-day weekends. One notable exception to this trend is Independence Day, which is still date-based rather than day-of-the-week-based.

I think that we should change how we officially define Independence Day to reflect the calendar of 1776, when it was on a Thursday. That is, we should celebrate the founding of the nation using the calendar of the year when it was founded, on the first Thursday in July.

This would create a situation almost identical to that of Thanksgiving, which is also on a certain Thursday. That is, the official holiday would be on Thursday, but most workers would arrange things so that they could take a four-day weekend.

The biggest question is, would an Independence Day defined as a certain date, the date when the Declaration of Indepencence was signed, July 4th, 1776, be more meaningful as a national holiday than one defined in terms of the day of the week when the same Declaration was signed in that year. It seems to me that the two definitions are completely equivalent in terms of meaningfulness. That is, there would be no loss, no gain in that dimension.

The secondary question is, would it harm the nation to make the switch from a date-based definition to a weekday-based one. This is a bit more complicated, because there are two ways to answer the question. The easy answer is that it will not, because they same transposition has already occurred with, for example, Presidents' Day. This is clear. The more complicated answer is whether it would affect things like salary and leave computations. In this case, I believe that it will make things easier, not harder: each year would be the same, because salary and leave are generally calculated on a weekly basis.

In summary, I believe that we could achive a significant improvement in our enjoyment of Independence Day, with no loss of patriotic meaning, by redefining the day to match the weekday when the Declaration was signed in 1776 rather than the calendar date. On the other hand, it seems pretty unlikely to me that this will ever happen.


Vice President vs President of the Senate

President Cheney has made a very interesting point. (By "president" I'm referring to his role in the Senate.) He is claiming that his office--the dual office of Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate--is immune to restrictions placed on the Executive Branch, because it is "also" part of the Legislative Branch. The scare quotes around "also" signal the thesis of this article: I think that on constitutional grounds, the office of the President of the Senate should be primary over that of Vice President of the United States, and therefore, that Cheney's office is wholly in the Legislative Branch unless the President of the United States should die or pass control under the 25th Amendment, at which point it leaves the Legislative Branch and passes to the Executive.

Historically, that is, in the original unamended US Constitution, we have several indications as to the role of the dual office:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided. The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
Also, the original process of the Electoral College included three indications, that the term and election is identical to that of the President of the United States:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows...
and that the President of the Senate has a unique ceremonial role in the process itself:
The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted
and that the Vice President/President of the Senate is the person receiving the second highest number of Electoral College votes
In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President.
Finally, the rule regarding succession is laid out:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President...
That's the unamended US Constitution.

Note that in the original version, this office has three roles in the government: to be President of the Senate, to preside over the Electoral College, and to succeed to the presidency should need arise. The 12th Amendment refines this process slightly, and in a way that strengthens the thesis of the present article. It provides that instead of the runner-up to US President becoming the Vice President/President of the Senate, that person must run and be elected explicitly. It also provides that in case of an Electoral College tie, the Vice President/President of the Senate be elected by the Senate. There are quite a few further amendments that affect the office in ways that are not relevant here.

Therefore, it seems to me quite plausible that this dual office may have been conceived originally as yet another way to balance power between two branches of govenment. By electing the President of the Senate via the Electoral College, the considerations of the people regarding the chief executive would be maximally respected when the Vice President becomes President of the United States. Furthermore, by creating an office of President of the Senate elected by all of the states, and with a term shorter than that of the other senators, there would be a stronger connection of the people of the United States with the upper house of the legislature, whose members would otherwise be responsible only to their individual states. Therefore, what we see today as a fairly useless position of Vice President was probably intended to be an active President of the Senate, the second most powerful position in the federal government.

The problem is that the President of the Senate, being voteless except in case of a tie, was never given any real power in the Senate itself. Or, to say it another way, the power granted the President of the Senate was taken away by senate rules passed by senators unwilling to be limited by the power-balancing schemes of the Founders. In addition, because of the fact that the office of Vice President is much "sexier" because of its potential power upon the death of the President of the United States, it is that role which has been given strong emphasis by those who hold the office. To my knowledge, there has been no President of the Senate who actually exercised its powers, and this has also caused those powers to whither to the point of irrelevance.

However, those historical facts do not change the US Constitution. If we remember our basic logic, which says that if A is identical to B that we can always substitute A for B and vice-versa, then we can see that the office of which we are speaking is a single office: to be the President of the Senate and of the Electoral College, and to be the first in line to succeed the President.

Note that the second in line of succession is, interestingly enough, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now, because such a sequence was deemed much less likely, a special form of election was not provided for this office, nor was a second name (such as "Second Vice President") invented, although such a name would be perfectly valid. But in spite of this, there is an undeniable symmetry in the fact that the President of the Senate, the upper house, is first in line, and the President of the House (known as the "Speaker", but the offices are basically identical) is second in line. This symmetry is also strong evidence that the office of Vice President aka President of the Senate is not an executive office at all, but a legislative one.

In summary, it appears that the office of the Vice President aka President of the Senate has been grossly misinterpreted during over 200 years of history. It has wrongly been considered an Executive Branch office, with unfortunate consequences, and the Senate has lost the benefit of a president elected by all of the states. The presidents of both houses of Congress are in the direct line of succession to the presidency of the United States, and therefore, they each deserve certain considerations, such as being fully informed regarding the activities of the Executive Branch. However, they also have strong roles to play in their home Legislative Branch, and therefore when either one of them, the President of the Senate, or the Speaker of the House, becomes President of the United States, it must, under the Constitution, be seen not as a promotion of a member of the Executive, but as a transition whereby on of the leaders of the Legislative Branch moves to the Executive to assume new duties and powers there.

The one thing that we can do to try to move things in this, the constitutionally correct direction, has to do with names. This office has two names, "Vice President of the United States" and "President of the Senate". For historical reasons alluded to above, the former is seen as more powerful than the latter, and is the more commonly used. However, the apparent relative power of the two positions is an error: the Vice President has no constitutional role in the daily function of the Executive Branch, but a key role in the Senate. Therefore, we should begin by referring to the Vice President as "President (of the Senate)", as I did at the top of this article. Perhaps it isn't too late to mend this hole in the Legislative Branch, and to remove a pernicious growth from the Executive.

For some additional discussion of this thesis, please go here.