On Wednesday, the Senate advanced the nomination of Kalpana Kotagal to be a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was a relatively ordinary confirmation vote except for one thing: with her vote, Vice President Kamala Harris tied a 191-year-old record for casting the most tiebreaking votes in Congress.
The record had been held by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who made his 31 tiebreaking votes in almost eight years as the vice president for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson from 1825-1832. “The tiebreakers of Calhoun’s era were often related to the party division breakdown,” says Daniel Holt, assistant historian of the U.S. Senate Historical Office. “That’s a complicated picture in the 1820s and 1830s, as the two-party system was still developing and party affiliation was very fluid.”
Harris, on the other hand, tied his record in just two and a half years—in part because of how bitterly entrenched and divisive the politics of the two-party system have become. Joel K. Goldstein, scholar of the vice presidency, says Harris has a high number of tiebreaking votes “due to a combination of factors: a closely divided Senate, the polarization of our politics and the change in the filibuster rule so that it no longer takes 60 votes to bring an appointment to the floor. It only takes 50 but you need 51 to confirm an appointment.”
The tiebreaking role comes from the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 3, which says, “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”
The 2022 midterm election which brought Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate didn’t spare Harris from having to use her tie-breaker role. With Democratic senators John Fetterman’s hospitalization for depression and Dianne Feinstein’s absence due to a severe case of shingles, Harris was once again called upon to cast the deciding vote.
She and the other record holder held different views about their position. Harris wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle article before being sworn in as Vice President, “It is my hope that rather than come to the point of a tie, the Senate will instead find common ground and do the work of the American people.” Calhoun, on the other hand, relished the role. “In some cases, Calhoun maneuvered behind the scenes to get to a tied vote, allowing him to cast the deciding vote,” says Holt.
Casting a crucial deciding vote “was a double-edged sword,” says Calhoun biographer and Baylor University associate professor of history Robert Elder. “For someone trying to angle for the presidency, these votes raised his political profile and gave him the opportunity to craft an independent political image. But they also made him go on the record about divisive issues, which is always a liability for a politician. “
Harris and Calhoun also approached the responsibility differently. Calhoun frequently acted in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, according to Elder: he broke two tie votes to sink Martin Van Buren’s nomination to be minster to Great Britain in January 1832, despite Jackson’s support of the nomination. The big issues while Calhoun was vice president were things like internal improvements (canals and roads) and whether the government should protect home industry or open the country to free trade,” Elder says. “These were explosive political issues that created durable political coalitions, but not parties in which the members of Congress were expected to toe the party line. It was much less predictable in that sense.”
But nowadays, “The biggest difference, and the obstacle for Harris in creating an independent persona, is the expectation that Harris will support Biden’s agenda and vote for the Democratic side of the chamber in a tie,” Elder continues. “The fact that she will surpass Calhoun’s record is an illustration of the fact that there are two evenly matched parties in the Senate who vote virtually in lock step, but it doesn’t give her much of a platform.”
Goldstein concurs: “When she breaks a tie vote, she is essentially voting the Administration’s position,” he says. “As long as the Vice President shows up, the tie goes to the Administration.”
Surprisingly, Harris isn’t the only member of this White House who holds a tiebreaking record: Biden does, too. When he served as Vice President under Barack Obama, Biden didn’t cast a single tiebreaking vote. Twelve other Vice Presidents served without ever casting a fateful Senate vote, but Biden is the only one to serve two full terms without casting a tiebreaker.