what is a veto?

There’s a lot of tooth-gnashing, hair-pulling and hand-wringing these days over President Obama’s threat to veto legislation related to the Keystone XL pipeline making its way through Congress as of this writing.

What, though, is a veto?

It’s very simple. The Constitution – you know, the document that lays the groundwork for how the government of this country is supposed to operate – sets up a system of checks and balances that theoretically prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. This was an idea originally set out in the early 1700s by Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as the Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu – or just Montesquieu. We know it as a government formed of branches; if you ever watched Schoolhouse Rock!, though, you’ll recognize it as the three-ring circus that it is.

Our three branches, as you probably know, are the Executive (led by the president), the Legislative (Congress), and the Judicial (the Supreme Court of the US, or SCOTUS). Each has its responsibilities and the ability to override or cancel out the others and therefore affect change in this country.

Congress’ job is to write our laws – this is why they’re called the legislative branch. While it’s not important to this post, I just want to mention that any bill (which is what they call a law before it’s a law) that involves spending the public’s money has to start in the House of Representatives.


For a bill to become law, it must pass both chambers of Congress – the House and the Senate – by a simple majority. “Simple majority” is something the Senate doesn’t seem to understand these days, but that’s a subject for a different post.

Once Congress passes a bill, it then goes to the president. It’s not officially a law until the president signs it, mostly because the job of the executive branch is to enforce our laws. The president, therefore, has to be willing to set his people about the business of enforcing a law passed by Congress.

No-StampIf the president is unwilling to enforce a law, then, he can cancel it, and that, my friends, is called a veto. In my mind, the president has two rubber stamps in his desk, one that says YES and one that says NO… but that’s beside the point. The president can just veto the bill (NO!) or he can send it back to Congress with suggestions on how to rewrite it. The president has 10 days to decide whether he’s going to sign or veto a bill – not including Sundays. Depending on when that 10 days occurs, the bill will either become law without the executive’s signature (the president can’t stall forever, after all) or disappear like so much dust in the wind. (see pocket veto, below)

Once the bill goes back, Congress has two choices. They can rewrite it and resubmit it to the president, or they can override the veto. Overriding a veto is fairly difficult; while the original passage of the bill requires a simple majority of votes – say, 51 to 49 in the Senate* – overriding a veto requires a “super majority,” or 2/3 vote. Overriding a veto is a nearly impossible task in modern times given the abjectly partisan nature of Congress. The override rules are such that only a 2/3 majority of the people present must approve the override; the Senate has overridden with as few as 63 votes and the House’s overrides have hinged on as few as 276 votes.

We’ve had 44 presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Seven of those presidents never vetoed a bill, but every president since Chester Arthur (served 1881-85) has vetoed at least one bill. Franklin Roosevelt holds the record, having vetoed 635 bills. Second place is Grover Cleveland (414); third place is Harry Truman with just 250.

The president with the most overridden vetoes is Andrew Jackson (15), who saw nearly half his overrides negated by Congress. Next up is a three-way tie between Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, both with 12 on the override list. Third place – another tie, at 9 – Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Just for a little perspective, the two most hated presidents in recent memory – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – didn’t do much vetoing. GWB only vetoed 12 bills, and 4 of those got overridden. Obama has only vetoed two bills so far, and neither was overridden.

Interestingly, though, Obama has only done active (regular) vetoes. There’s a form of inactive veto called a “pocket” veto. Use the mental image of the president folding a piece of paper up and tucking it in his suit pocket. If Congress sends a bill to the president with less than 10 days left in the Congressional session, and the president refuses to sign it before the session ends, that’s a pocket veto. Congress can (and often does) appoint an agent to receive an expected veto while Congress is not in session; this tool prevents the pocket veto.

James Madison was the first president to use the pocket veto; he did so in 1812 to quash a bill that would have standardized the rules of naturalization (how foreigners become citizens). Ronald Reagan had 78 vetoes – half standard, half pocket. Franklin Roosevelt nixed 263 bills with pocket vetoes, the most prolific use of the pocket veto in US history. Dwight Eisenhower loved the pocket veto, using it on 108 of the 181 bills he vetoed.

The veto is the president’s check on Congress’ power, and the override is Congress’ check on the president’s power. That leaves SCOTUS.

You remember SCOTUS.

The Supreme Court of the United States, the judicial branch of our government, can exercise its authority as the body that interprets the laws. According to the Constitution, SCOTUS has one job: determine if a law adheres to the Constitution or not. If it does, it stays. If it doesn’t, it goes – no matter what the president or Congress say. That is their check on the power of the other two branches. Since the very first time SCOTUS exercised its authority to shut down Congress and/or the president – with the case Marbury v. Madison (as in President Madison) in 1803 – some say SCOTUS has overstepped its mandate … but that’s a topic for a future post.

Bottom line: a veto is the president’s ability to tell Congress to pound sand.

* Because of the bullshit, dysfunctional way the Senate operates in the 21st century, “simple majority” now means at least 60 votes, but, again, that’s a subject for a future post.

1 thought on “what is a veto?

  1. Funny, as I read this, I could hear the old cartoon short from my childhood- “I’m just a bill, and I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…” They were short and simple, but they taught a lot!

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