Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution –the Presentment Clause–provides that every bill that passes Congress “shall, before it becomes a law, be presented to the President of the United States.” If the President approves of the bill, “he shall sign it.” If he disapproves, “he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.” If the house to which the bill is returned agrees to pass the bill by a two-thirds margin, it is sent to the other house. If approved by two-thirds of that house, “it shall become a Law.” The votes cast by both houses “shall be determined by yeas and Nays,” and the names of the persons voting “shall be entered on the Journal of each house respectively.” If any bill is not returned by the President “within ten Days (Sundays excepted)” after being presented to him, “the same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.” This last phrase invited “pocket vetoes” by the President.
The President’s veto power reflects the Framers’ implementation of the Doctrine of Checks and Balances in the lawmaking process. Inclusion of the President in making legislation brings to bear the concept of the collective wisdom of the two political branches in enacting the laws that govern the nation. From the beginning, delegates to the Constitutional Convention were committed to entrusting the newly-minted President with the authority to veto bills presented by Congress, but there was some debate over the question of whether the power should be absolute or qualified. James Wilson, for example, feared that without an absolute veto, that Congress could “at any moment sink” the executive into “non-existence.” Alexander Hamilton shared Wilson’s perspective. But the wise old man of the Convention—Benjamin Franklin—drew upon his experience in Pennsylvania and reminded his colleagues that the governor had used his veto authority to “extort money.” The governor was corrupt; he had often demanded an increase in his salary, or “some donation” in return for his approval of a bill. Roger Sherman agreed with Franklin. He was opposed to allowing a single man to thwart the will of the legislature: “No one man could be found so far above all the rest in wisdom.”
Most of the Framers were strongly opposed to the concept of an absolute veto, which smacked of the King’s prerogative powers. But they recognized the wisdom of empowering the President to block or veto measures which were unconstitutional, unwise and injurious to the public welfare. Hamilton, in Federalist No. 73, pointed out “the insufficiency of a mere parchment delineation of the boundaries” of each branch and the necessity of furnishing each with constitutional arms for its defence.” They perceived the veto as intrinsically negative in character. After all, it is essentially a power to prevent the passage of legislation. But they also viewed the veto power as a revisionary power—a positive mechanism for persuading Congress to reconsider its legislation under threat of a presidential veto and to alter provisions of measures to win support to win the President’s support.
At all events, the veto power was qualified by empowering Congress to override a presidential rejection of a bill presented to him. The question of the appropriate percentage of members necessary to override a presidential veto was a matter that occasioned discussion and debate. Initially, a two-thirds vote in each chamber was required. Then, as a means of protecting the executive veto, the percentage went up to three-fourths. Soon, it was back to two-thirds.
Early Presidents exercised the veto power infrequently. George Washington invoked it only twice during his two terms in office—once on constitutional grounds and once because he thought the bill presented to him was carelessly drafted. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not use the veto. The explanation for the absence of vetoes during their terms in office, a combined 16 years, is to be seen in the fact that they enjoyed majorities in Congress and influence in shaping legislation. In the first 28 years of the American Presidency, the veto power was exercised only seven times.
Beginning with Andrew Jackson, however, Presidents began to invoke the veto power much more frequently. Jackson exercised used the veto 12 times, which evoked anger and frustration in Congress. Jackson’s veto of the national bank bill in 1832 infuriated legislators and became the pivotal issue in the presidential election. Jackson was pushed to sign the bill into law, but he refused, despite the fact that the national bank had been established by the First Congress in 1791, and supported by Congress for the next three decades, and supported by previous Presidents and the Supreme Court in the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). He maintained his right to determine the wisdom and constitutionality of the bill, irrespective of what his predecessors had said. In terms familiar to students of the Presidency and the Constitution, Jackson anticipated Abraham Lincoln, in invoking the principle of departmental construction, and said that each public official takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, “as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others.” Jackson conceded no grounds of superiority to interpretations advanced by either Congress or the judiciary.
John Tyler resorted to the veto power so often that the opposition party introduced a resolution to impeach him. In drafting the resolution, opponents of Tyler invoked the spirit and language of the colonists’ complaints about King George III, charging Tyler with “the high crime and misdemeanor of withholding his assent to laws undispensable [sic] to the just operations of government, which involved no constitutional difficulty on his part.” President Tyler bears the dubious distinction of having been the first President, in 1845, to suffer a veto override. Historically, few presidential vetoes have been overridden. Indeed, only about four percent of all vetoed bills have become law since the founding of the nation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the record for the most vetoes, rejecting a total of 635 bills in his four terms in the White House. Like Grover Cleveland, who averaged 73 vetoes per year, most of Roosevelt’s vetoes were exercised to block private bills sponsored by members of Congress seeking relief for individuals pursuing pensions and private benefits that only Congress could authorize.
The Constitution, it will be recalled, provides three methods of presidential action in exercising the veto power: sign a bill, veto it, or allow it to lapse by using a “pocket veto.” Cleveland introduced a fourth form: allowing a bill to become law without signing it. Cleveland wanted to avoid any association with the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act. Although his own party controlled both houses of Congress, Cleveland did not want his name to be on the bill. He couldn’t veto the bill without offending his party but was emphatic that the measure was no consistent with “honest tariff reform.”