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Joe Biden Has 10 Days Left To Cast His First Tie-Breaking Vote

Joe Biden is poised to leave office on Jan. 20 with a distinction — the longest-serving vice president to never cast a tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate.

The Constitution assigns few duties to vice presidents. One of them, breaking ties in the Senate — “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided” — used to happen more frequently. In the first 114 years after the Constitution took effect, vice presidents broke 177 ties, according to data compiled by the Senate Historical Office. In the past 114 years, they’ve broken 67.

Since Biden became vice president eight years ago, the Senate has taken nearly 1,500 roll-call votes requiring a simple majority1 — none have required Biden’s vote to break a tie.2 Barring a tie in the last week and a half of his term, Biden will be the only vice president who has served more than one term without breaking a tie.

VICE PRESIDENT FIRST YEAR OF TERM DAYS IN OFFICE TIES BROKEN
John Adams 1789 2,874 29
John C. Calhoun 1825 2,856 28
George M. Dallas 1845 1,461 19
Schuyler Colfax 1869 1,461 17
Richard M. Johnson 1837 1,461 17
George Clinton 1805 2,604 12
John C. Breckinridge 1857 1,461 9
Dick Cheney 2001 2,922 8
Richard M. Nixon 1953 2,922 8
Alben W. Barkley 1949 1,461 8
Thomas R. Marshall 1913 2,922 8
George H.W. Bush 1981 2,922 7
Hannibal Hamlin 1861 1,461 7
William A. Wheeler 1877 1,461 6
Elbridge Gerry 1813 629 6
Al Gore 1993 2,922 4
Hubert H. Humphrey 1965 1,461 4
Henry A. Wallace 1941 1,461 4
James S. Sherman 1909 1,336 4
Levi P. Morton 1889 1,461 4
Martin Van Buren 1833 1,461 4
John Nance Garner 1933 2,879 3
Charles Curtis 1929 1,461 3
Chester A. Arthur 1881 199 3
Millard Fillmore 1849 492 3
Daniel D. Tompkins 1817 2,922 3
Aaron Burr 1801 1,461 3
Thomas Jefferson 1797 1,460 3
Spiro T. Agnew 1969 1,724 2
Charles G. Dawes 1925 1,461 2
Adlai E. Stevenson 1893 1,461 2
Walter Mondale 1977 1,461 1
Harry S. Truman 1945 82 1
Garret A. Hobart 1897 992 1
Henry Wilson 1873 993 1
Joe Biden 2009 2,922 0
Dan Quayle 1989 1,461 0
Nelson A. Rockefeller 1974 763 0
Gerald R. Ford 1973 246 0
Lyndon B. Johnson 1961 1,036 0
Calvin Coolidge 1921 881 0
Charles W. Fairbanks 1905 1,461 0
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 194 0
Thomas A. Hendricks 1885 266 0
Andrew Johnson 1865 42 0
William Rufus King 1853 45 0
John Tyler 1841 31 0
Senate ties broken by vice presidents

The number of days listed for Biden is through Jan. 20, 2017.

Source: Senate Historical Offce, @unitedstates project

Aside from Biden, 11 vice presidents never cast a tie-breaking vote. Unlike Biden, none of those served more than one term. Only two others — Charles Fairbanks (Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president) and Dan Quayle (George H.W. Bush’s vice president) — served even a full single term. John Adams, the first vice president, broke 29 ties, the most of anyone to occupy the office.

The current gap between tie-breaking votes — eight years, nine months, 28 days and counting — is, so far, shorter than the longest gap in U.S. history: Between Feb. 14, 1899, and Feb. 2, 1911 — nearly 12 years — the vice president didn’t cast a Senate vote.

Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University who has written about the vice presidency, told me that the Biden anomaly is likely the result of a combination of four factors, though none by itself can fully explain it:

  • The partisan composition of the Senate over Biden’s two terms did not lend itself to ties. Before the current session of Congress began Jan. 3, the closest full Senate3 during the previous eight years was from 2011 to 2013, when there were 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans.4 But ties can still happen without a closely divided Senate. Although most of the tie-breaking votes cast by Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, came during 50-50 or 51-49 Senates, one was cast when the Senate was divided 55-45. Other vice presidents’ votes have occurred during times of even wider partisan splits.
  • The vice president, once considered a legislative officer, is now primarily a part of the executive branch. Beginning with the 20th century, and especially since Richard Nixon held the job, vice presidents have spent less time presiding over the Senate.5 Modern-day vice presidents rarely preside over the Senate except for ceremonial occasions or votes in which the administration is particularly invested. Still, there have been tie-breaking votes cast since this shift.
  • We’re in a period of increased congressional partisanship. The fewer senators who are willing to cross party lines on votes, the less the likelihood of a tie vote (unless the Senate’s party makeup is 50-50).
  • More measures now require 60 votes to move forward because of the increased use of cloture motions.

Donald Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, may get more opportunities to exercise his constitutional power than Biden has. Pence will enter office with a Senate made up of 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats, closer than any full Senate since the end of the George W. Bush administration. And the closer the Senate is, the higher the likelihood of ties.

Footnotes

  1. Other votes require two-thirds or three-fifths majorities, which preclude a tie.
  2. The Senate did have one tie vote during Biden’s time as vice president, according to the chamber’s data on roll-call votes: On Sept. 18, 2014, Sen. Harry Reid, then the majority leader, proposed an amendment to an amendment to appropriations legislation. Sen. Ted Cruz moved to table the amendment. The vote on that motion was 50-50, with most Democrats voting against. Because Biden would have voted against the motion as well, his vote was not needed.
  3. There was a brief period at the end of 2012 when the split was 52-47, with one vacancy; the Senate had only one vote during that time that required a simple majority.
  4. Including independents who caucused with the Democrats
  5. Nixon estimated that about 10 percent of his time was spent presiding over the Senate.

Aaron Bycoffe is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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