- Historic Sites
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Finally it should be noted that the extension of the veto power beyond its narrowest limits has been a gradual affair. Nearly a dozen Presidents have contributed to its expansion over a hundred eighty-five years, while impoundment, for example, developed rapidly and dramatically in two administrations over thirty-three years. Where one has generated controversy, the other has produced little or none. Indeed, most commentators seem to accept the view of Lord Bryce, a nineteenth-century observer of American life, that the veto power “has worked wonderfully well.”
Herewith some highlights and details:
- • The veto currently exercised by the President of the United States remains unique among the powers granted to elected leaders of national states. Although the presidents of the Third and Fourth French Republics possessed a suspensive veto, it was never used.
- • The monarch of Great Britain ostensibly may exercise a veto by withholding the royal assent ( le roy le veult —“the king approves it”), but no monarch has done so since Queen Anne rejected a Scottish militia bill in March, 1707, using, as is customary, the Old French form la reyne s’avisera (“the queen will consider the matter”). Because the monarch is now expected to sign all bills at the direction of the cabinet and because all important bills are sent into Parliament by the ministers, or endorsed by them, the veto in all probability will never again be used. Were an unacceptable bill to be returned for the monarch’s assent, the cabinet would either call for a new election to test its parliamentary strength or merely resign to make way for a new ministry.
- • When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, the only existing executive veto in the United States—and the model the drafters eventually used—was in Massachusetts. Since then forty-nine states have granted their governors that power. (North Carolina is the exception.)
- • Since 1789 congressmen have introduced nearly 941,000 separate bills and joint resolutions for possible enactment into law. The First Congress considered 144 measures and passed 118. At the present time an average of 22,000 new bills appear in each two-year term of Congress; most of them die quietly—and unmourned—in the labyrinths of congressional committees. Somewhere between 900 and 1,500 will eventually become law.
- • Since the establishment of the government a hundred eighty-five years ago Congress has enacted nearly 86,000 laws. Some 40,500 originated as public bills , generally designed to affect the nation as a whole. Roughly 45,500, or more than half, began as private bills , designed to grant relief to specific individuals or groups named in the bill where the enforcement of other, existing statutes would work a hardship in taxation, immigration restrictions, military pensions, and the like.
- • Thirty Presidents have cast a total of 2,289 vetoes (through November. 1973). This represents about 2.6 per cent of all legislation submitted to the President for approval. A total of 1,315 were regular vetoes ; 974 were pocket vetoes.
- • Congress has overridden only 78 regular vetoes. This accounts for 6 per cent of all regular vetoes cast, or 3.4 per cent of all vetoes. Virtually all overrides were in support of public bills.
- • Roughly 60 per cent of all vetoes have been directed to private bills. Congress has rarely brought such vetoes to a floor vote.
- • Four Presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, Cleveland, Truman, and Elsenhower) together account for 1,650 vetoes, or approximately 72 per cent of all vetoes cast. Thirty of these vetoes were overridden.
- • Andrew Johnson had the most vetoes overridden: 15 of 21 regular vetoes. Harry Truman is next with 12 overrides out of 180 regular vetoes cast.
- • Eleven Presidents were never overridden: Washington, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Lincoln, McKinley, Harding, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Among them they cast a total of 60 regular vetoes.
- • Seven Presidents did not exercise the veto: John Adams, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Fillmore, and Garfield. None of them apparently was opposed to the power in principle; the occasion for its use simply did not arise.
- • Van Buren exercised the pocket veto only, and just once, against a bill that was technically defective because an officer of the House had failed to sign it.
- • Three Presidents who cast regular vetoes did not exercise the pocket veto: Washington, Monroe, and Pierce.
George Washington was the first President to use the veto. He exercised it twice and was not overridden on either occasion. The first was cast in April, 1792, against a bill reapportioning the House of Representatives in accordance with the census of 1790. Washington argued that the reapportionment was unconstitutional because it provided a greater number of representatives than the Constitution permitted. His second veto came nearly five years later, in February, 1797, when he rejected a proposed reduction of cavalry units in the United States Army on defense grounds (they were needed in the West) and for economic reasons (many among those to be dismissed had served only one third of their enlistment, and because they had each been paid an enlistment bounty, the nation would stand to lose a substantial sum). Four hundred seven bills became law during Washington’s two terms.