Harris and the Migration Crisis: A Look at VP-led Task Forces

Walter “Fritz” Mondale, who died last week, re-defined the vice presidency and for the most part his successors have followed the model he established. But there has been one, very specific deviation. Mondale counseled future VPs not to accept line assignments. But high-profile policy assignments have become standard for all of the vice presidents since Mondale. Vice President Harris taking on the immigration crisis is another instance in a well-trod path.

Do Mondale’s original objections continue to hold true? Does it make sense to give the VP these types of assignments? What types of assignments fit the bill for vice presidential oversight? Is Harris’ role on the immigration crisis in this vein, or a deviation?

Mondale’s Take

Two recent predecessors shaped Mondale’s approach to the vice presidency, his mentor Hubert Humphrey and his immediate predecessor Nelson Rockefeller. Humphrey had been VP to Lyndon Johnson who treated Humphrey terribly and weighed him down with insignificant commissions. Rockefeller’s situation was the opposite. He was appointed to be VP by Gerald Ford, who had been appointed to replace Agnew as VP and ended up replacing Nixon after Watergate. Rockefeller, a larger-than-life figure, took the vice presidency hoping for substantial policy impact. His protégé, Henry Kissinger, was dominating foreign policy. Rockefeller hoped to do the same in the domestic sphere. He asked to head the Domestic Policy Council as part of his condition for joining the administration. Rockefeller, a big government Republican (remember those…) wanted to initiate lots of new programs. Ford was a fiscal hawk and uninterested in Rockefeller’s initiatives. Ultimately, Ford’s chiefs of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, ran interference and used the Domestic Policy Council to weigh Rockefeller down with busy work.

Consulting with them, Mondale decided to avoid line assignments. He advised his successor George H.W. Bush, and VPs since:

If such an assignment is important, it will cut across the responsibilities of one or two cabinet members or other agency heads and embroil you in a debilitating bureaucratic fight — as Henry Wallace found out. If it is meaningless or trivial, it will undermine your reputation and squander your time — as most vice presidents found out.

Wallace had been FDR’s second VP. He was assigned oversight of the Bureau of Economic Welfare (BEW) which was purchasing strategic materials for the war. Wallace was a skilled technocrat (he had been an effective Secretary of Agriculture) but not an adroit politician. FDR, as was his wont, had assigned other officials these responsibilities as well. Wallace was soon in a very public political fight with the Secretary of Commerce. He lost the fight and FDR abolished the BEW.

Mondale was offered the chance to run Africa policy, but saw that it would place him in conflict with the State Department. He was of course happy to work on African issues in conjunction with Foggy Bottom. Carter also floated the idea of the VP serving as White House chief of staff, but Mondale did not think staff work was the role of the VP.

Mondale’s fundamental argument was sound. The VP is not an alternate cabinet member, has not formal executive authority or resources. But all of Mondale’s successors ended up taking line assignments, and several did well, what changed?

Vice Presidential Task Forces

VP Bush expressed support and agreement with Mondale’s conception of the vice presidency, but he quickly found himself taking on line assignments. Domestically, Bush oversaw regulatory reform. Politically this made sense, it re-assured the conservative Reaganites that the more centrist Bush was with them on their economic agenda. He also delegated much of the work to his counsel, C. Boyden Gray. Bush was also assigned to head the crisis management group at the National Security Council. This assignment was given because the Secretary of State (the willful Al Haig) and the National Security Advisor were at war. Bringing Bush into the slot closed off one venue of their conflict.

Bush went on to head task forces on counter-narcotics flowing into South Florida and countering terrorism. The former came about because a group of Florida businessmen (including his son and future Florida governor Jeb) approached Bush about the toll drug trafficking was taking on south Florida. This was the era of Miami Vice. Bush pulled together the military and law enforcement, which involved overcoming a number of legal and organizational issues. The counter-terror task force was an assignment as the administration struggled to bring together the multiple agencies with equities in terrorism issues to create realistic policy options. Neither of these efforts was an unmitigated success, but neither was a failure either. They produced options and helped manage difficult situations.

VPs since have gone on to lead task forces and committees in generally useful ways. Quayle had some wins heading the Space Council, although it brought him into conflict with Secretary of State James Baker.

Gore did a lot of this stuff. Domestically he oversaw the Reinventing Government Initiative and a number of shorter-term task forces. Perhaps emblematic of the VP role in running task forces, was his work overseeing security for the Atlanta Olympics. White House counter-terror advisor Richard Clarke went to Gore and said he was having trouble bringing the many state, federal, and local players together to coordinate, Clarke needed someone to crack heads and get everyone on the same page. Gore replied, “I do mad well.”

Gore oversaw bi-national commissions with Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, South Africa, and Kazakhstan. It cannot be said that they solved things, but the Commission with Russia was a useful channel to keep the relationship sound. The Commission to South Africa helped manage their transition from apartheid, some sensitive arms export issues, and raised policy awareness of the spread of HIV in Africa. All of the Commissions with the Former Soviet Union did useful work on reducing the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology.

Cheney, surprisingly, did not have as many formal task forces, although he oversaw the administration’s energy commission early on. Pence also had fewer of these assignments (they tended to go to Jared), but he did oversee space policy and the pandemic response. The latter instance could not be defined as a success.

Biden, on the other hand, took on a number of assignments for Obama. Most notably, he oversaw the stimulus spending, but he also took the lead on managing an immigration crisis from Central American in 2014.

Secrets to Success (?)

Success in politics and policy is illusive. Some of these task forces had significant accomplishments, but many were part of muddling through. Biden’s work in 2014 on the migration crisis and Bush’s work countering narcotics and terrorism could not be described as solving these issues, for example. What these commissions did was manage issue, provide political cover, and provide options. This is not cynical, this is reality. Sometimes it is the best that can be done. The problems had complex origins that were not amenable to solutions.

What enables a vice president to succeed in overseeing a task force or issues?

Presidential support is absolutely essential. Most of these assignments were granted by the president, not generated by the vice president. And, they were important to the president. Clinton called Russia the California of international politics — that is if you get it right, everything else works out. So assigning Russia to Gore was showing that he took Russia seriously. Reinventing Government was a wonky undertaking, but it was intended by Clinton to highlight that he wasn’t an old-style big government Democrat, that he was committed to efficiency and innovation.

Biden’s assignments of stimulus oversight and the Central American migration crisis were political hot. If the administration didn’t get these issues right, the political consequences would be huge.

Mondale said that he didn’t want these assignments because they would put him in conflict with cabinet members. But generally, these assignments involve multiple agencies that can’t quite coordinate. Bush’s counter-terror commission was established because the major cabinet agencies involved — State, Defense, and Justice — couldn’t get on the same page. Bush helped work through these issues so they could coordinate. Similarly, in his work on countering narcotics trafficking he brought together the military and law enforcement, groups that had little to do with one another. There are issues that are too big for any department and if not attended to, something important slips through the cracks. Often key initiatives get caught in bureaucratic logjams that no one has the authority to resolve. Vice presidential attention can break down these barriers.

The final point, the big change from Mondale’s time was actually brought about by Mondale. The vice president was not a significant figure in Washington before Mondale. But Carter insisted that requests from the VP be treated as requests from the President. For VP task forces to succeed, the VP needs to be taken seriously. After Mondale, that has not been a problem. It is understood that if the VP is engaging in an issue, it is being taken seriously at the very highest level.

Implications for Harris’ Work on Migration Crisis

The Central American migration crisis has all of the characteristics of a typical vice-presidential line assignment. It is a politically charged and pressing issue. It is complex and requires high-level attention. It is multi-faceted, engaging multiple policy communities: diplomacy, development, law enforcement, and probably several others. This means collaborating across several departments and several governments. A key barrier is delivering U.S. aid in countries as dangerous and corrupt as the Northern Triangle nations. That is the sort of problem vice presidents can solve. Similarly, the local governments will be far more responsive to the vice president of the United States than to mid-level officials.

There is no guarantee of success (although I would not bet against Kamala Harris), but this task is not a political weight dropped on Kamala. Rather, if the administration does not address this issue effectively, it will pay a high political price. In response, they are sending one of their best people. The VP can be the ultimate fixer.

Originally published at https://vicepresidency.org.

AAAS Policy Fellow, formerly @UMIACS (specializing in international security), did a PhD on vice presidents, interested in a lot of stuff