Presidential Vetoes in American History

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Veto numbers by individual presidents as well as Congressional overrides of vetoes tell much about the relationship between Congress and the President.

The presidential power to veto legislation is an integral part of the system of “checks and balances.” The term “veto” comes from the Latin, meaning “I forbid,” and can be used two different ways by Presidents to stop legislation from being enacted. The history of the presidential veto is a reflection of the relationship between Congress and the Executive Branch as well as their understanding of constitutionality.

Types of Presidential Vetoes in American History

The Constitution gives the President the right to veto bills sent from the House and Senate once approved by a simple majority in both chambers. During Congressional sessions, the president may veto bills, give written reasons for the veto, and send the legislation back to Congress where members can still enact the bill with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Bills arriving for presidential signature after their session has adjourned can be rejected using the pocket veto in which the President sets aside the legislation without signing it. Since Congress is no longer in session, the bill will fail. One of the most famous pocket vetoes was Andrew Jackson’s rejection of the rechartering of the National Bank in 1832. If the President holds the legislation while Congress is in session for ten days without signing it, the bill becomes law.

Presidential Vetoes before the American Civil War

During his brief term in office following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson used the veto 29 times. The total number of presidential vetoes of all of the preceding presidents was 59. Andrew Jackson had 12 total vetoes followed by John Tyler with 10. Much can be drawn from these numbers.

Andrew Johnson rapidly incurred the displeasure of a Congress led by Radical Republicans in 1865 over Reconstruction. Additionally, Johnson was a Southern Democrat and an “accidental” president. In vetoing key elements of the Republican Reconstruction legislative agenda, he became a pariah and ultimately was forced to undergo impeachment. Johnson was also a “strict constructionist” of the Constitution and based many of his vetoes on his views of constitutionality.

Unlike Jackson and Tyler, however, Johnson’s vetoes were overridden 12 times (once for Tyler, none for Jackson). Tyler and Jackson both followed the strict constructionist model and vetoed measures they deemed to be unconstitutional. In Tyler’s case, he faced a hostile Congress. In some ways a man without a party, Tyler had limited support from either the Democrats or the Whigs, who had repudiated him in 1841.

It should also be noted that, according to scholars, [1] these early Congresses took great care to write legislation that was constitutional. Hence, there were fewer presidential vetoes.

Post Civil War Presidential Vetoes

Presidential vetoes rise in number after the Civil War, declining again after the Eisenhower administration. Franklin Roosevelt vetoed 635 measures during his many years in office yet only 9 of those vetoes were overridden. Grover Cleveland vetoed 414 measures during his two non-consecutive terms, yet as historians point out, many of these vetoes related to private bills that addressed individuals or organizations rather than public bills affecting everyone.

Since the practice of private bills decreased after Eisenhower’s two terms, there was a significant drop in presidential vetoes. President Bill Clinton, for example, had 22 vetoes (2 overridden), only one more than John F. Kennedy’s 21 (none overridden). President Gerald Ford had the highest number of vetoes since the Eisenhower years with 66 of which 12 were overridden. This was in the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War and Ford was facing an uncooperative Congress.

Reforming the Presidential Veto with a Line Item Veto

Much has been said in recent years regarding amending the Constitution to give the President a “line item veto.” Already in use by most state governors, this process would allow for the rejection of certain parts of a bill rather than vetoing a potential good bill with undesirable riders or amendments attached or so-called “earmarks” hidden in the bill.

Sources:

  1. [1] John J. Patrick and Richard C. Remy, Lessons on the Constitution (Social Science Education Consortium, 1987) see pages 138 ff.
  2. John J. Patrick, Richard M. Pious, and Donald A. Ritchie, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government (Oxford University Press, 2001)
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