Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Everything you need to know about vetoes -- Feb. 5, 2015 column


The vetoes are coming. The House plans to vote next week on a Senate-passed bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and that likely will give President Barack Obama his first chance this year to use his veto pen.

After vetoing just two bills in six years, Obama already has threatened to reject at least 10 bills contemplated or under consideration by the Republican-controlled Congress.

That may sound impressive, but Obama is a veto piker compared with Grover Cleveland, the so-called king of vetoes. In his eight years as president, Cleveland wielded his veto authority 584 times.

But Cleveland takes second in total numbers to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his 12 years in the Oval Office, FDR had 635 vetoes – and he had Democratic congresses his entire tenure.

As we haven’t seen any vetoes since 2010, here’s a quick refresher on what Woodrow Wilson (44 vetoes) called a president’s “most formidable prerogative.”

The word veto comes from the Latin “I forbid” and refers to the president’s power to disapprove a bill and prevent its becoming law. The word veto doesn’t appear in the Constitution, but the framers put the power in Article 1, Section 7 as a check on the legislative process.

A president has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress for it to become law. With a regular veto, the president returns the bill to the chamber where it originated, usually with an explanation of his objections. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House.

If Congress adjourns during the 10 days, the president can’t return the bill. His decision to withhold his signature is a pocket veto, and Congress does not have the opportunity to override.

Since 1789, when the federal government was founded, 37 of the 44 presidents have used their veto power. In all there have been 2,564 vetoes -- 1,498 regular and 1,066 pocket.

The last president to serve two terms without a single veto? Thomas Jefferson.

Congress has overridden just 4 percent of vetoes, the Congressional Research Service reports, but the hurdle to overcoming a president’s objections has dropped in recent decades. Since John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Congress has overridden 16 percent of vetoes.  

Democrats controlled both houses of Congress when Obama wielded his veto pen in 2009 and 2010, and neither veto was overridden.

You won’t be surprised that both veto threats and vetoes occur more often when the president and Congress are of different parties. Threats help the president shape legislation because the party in power knows it will need the support of two-thirds of the Congress to make law stick over a president’s disapproval.

“For highly consequential legislation drafted during divided party government, it is hardly an exaggeration to say the president keeps up a veritable drum-beat of veto threats,” Princeton University professor Charles M. Cameron wrote in an essay on “The Presidential Veto” published in 2009.

The vast majority of vetoes are inconsequential in that they have little public policy effect, he says. Congress has attempted to override about 80 percent of consequential vetoes during divided party government, with a success rate of 45 percent, adds Cameron, who is the author of the 2000 book “Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power.” 

Democrat Cleveland had a Democratic Congress for only two of his eight years as president. Of his 346 regular vetoes and 238 pocket vetoes, only seven were overridden. Most of the regular vetoes in his first term disallowed bills to grant veterans benefits to people who didn’t qualify. Even considering their symbolic value, though, “Cleveland’s vetoes…didn’t amount to much,” Cameron writes.

George W. Bush was the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without a veto, but that was in the post-9/11 era when Congress was more deferential. Bush issued 12 vetoes in his second term – 11 when Democrats controlled the Senate and House – and four were overridden.

Dwight Eisenhower used the veto to force compromise with Democratic activists, and Bill Clinton forced House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich to moderate, says Cameron.   

So as the vetoes come once again, we’ll see if Obama can use his leverage to force this Republican Congress to moderate its demands.  

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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