The veto power of the U.S. president is one way of preventing the legislative branch of the federal government from exercising too much power. The U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to veto, or reject, legislation that has been passed by Congress.
What Does Veto Mean?
The word “veto” means “I forbid” in Latin. In the United States, Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution gives the president the authority to reject legislation that has been passed by both houses of Congress, though the word “veto” doesn’t actually appear in the Constitution.
Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but this is very difficult to achieve. Even the threat of a veto allows the president to influence debate on legislation in Congress before a bill is passed, and pressure legislators to make changes to a bill to avoid the veto.
Both the veto power and Congress’ ability to override it are examples of the system of checks and balances the Constitution created to ensure the separation of powers and keep any one branch of government from becoming too powerful.
How the Veto Works
Once both houses of Congress approve the same version of a bill or joint resolution, it goes to the president, who has 10 days (not including Sundays) to act on that legislation. If the president takes no action on a bill within 10 days, and Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law.
In the case of a regular veto, the president returns the piece of legislation to Congress within 10 days without signing it, usually with a memorandum explaining why he is rejecting the bill, known as a “veto message.”
Once a president has sent a bill back to Congress, he cannot change his mind and ask for it back. (Ulysses S. Grant tried to do this twice during his presidency, but Congress refused to comply.)
If Congress adjourns within 10 days after giving the president a bill, the president can exercise what’s known as a “pocket veto” by choosing not to sign the bill, or effectively putting it in his pocket. In this case, the bill will not become law, and Congress must begin the process all over again if it wants to revive the legislation.
The pocket veto is an absolute veto, which Congress cannot override. Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution provides for this pocket veto power, stating that “the Congress by their adjournment prevent its return, in which case, it shall not be law.” Over the years, debate over the meaning of “adjournment” resulted in several federal court cases involving the pocket veto.
In the early 1970s, after both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford attempted to use the pocket veto during brief adjournments during a congressional session, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. ruled that the president could not use the pocket veto during short congressional recesses, as long as Congress appointed an officer to receive an ordinary veto message during such a recess.
How Can Congress Override A Presidential Veto?
Congress can override a regular presidential veto with a two-thirds vote of those present in both the House and the Senate. As of 2014, presidents had vetoed more than 2,500 bills, and Congress had overridden less than 5 percent of those vetoes.
The Constitution does not give the president the ability to reject parts of a bill and approve the remainder—or line-item veto power—which most state governors have. Since the 1870s, more than 100 amendments have been proposed to change this, but none have been passed. In 1995, Congress passed a law giving the president the line-item veto, but the Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds that it gave the president more power than the Constitution allowed.
Andrew Jackson and the Veto
The Constitution doesn’t specify the grounds on which president can exercise veto power, but many people originally understood that the framers meant the president to veto a bill only if he believed a law was unconstitutional. For that reason, the majority of vetoes before 1832 were on constitutional grounds.
Then came Andrew Jackson. Only the fourth president to use the veto power, he openly declared he was vetoing bills based on political, rather than constitutional grounds. (Jackson’s rejection of a bill rechartering the Second Bank of the United States remains one of the most famous uses of the pocket veto in U.S. history.)
Since the Civil War, most presidents have not vetoed bills on constitutional grounds, but because they considered the legislation unjust or simply unwise.
Famous Vetoes Throughout History
In 1792, George Washington exercised the presidential veto power for the first time; he would use the veto only twice during his presidency, and was never overridden. In fact, the nation didn’t see a presidential veto overridden until 1845, when Congress overrode John Tyler’s veto of a bill prohibiting the president from authorizing the building of Coast Guard ships without approved appropriations from Congress.
Perhaps unsurprisingly—given the length of time he spent in office—President Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed the most bills of any president in history, with 635. (He was overridden only nine times.) But Grover Cleveland, in his two non-consecutive terms in the 1880s and ‘90s, nearly matched him, with 584 vetoes (seven of which were overridden).
More Recent Presidential Vetoes
In more recent decades, some notable vetoes (and overrides) have shaped the course of American government and society. In 1971, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Care Development Act, dashing hopes that the United States would begin building a system of universal, federally financed day care.
In 1974, Ford vetoed the Freedom of Information Act due to national security concerns. But in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress overrode the veto, making thousands of previously classified records public.
Another notable override occurred in 1988, when Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill imposing sanctions on South Africa’s pro-apartheid government; Congress overrode the veto and passed the sanctions anyway.
In contrast to many of their predecessors in office, George W. Bush and Barack Obama exercised relatively few vetoes, with just 12 each. Congress overrode only one of Obama’s vetoes, the 2012 veto of a bill allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.
Veto Power, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government.
How a Bill Becomes a Law, USA.gov.
Congress At Work: The Presidential Veto and Congressional Veto Override Process, National Archives.
A Look at the Record: Veto, American Heritage.
Ten Vetoes That Shaped Recent Political History, Time.
Congress overrides a presidential veto, March 3, 1845. Politico.