- Historic Sites
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Early in 1944 Roosevelt had asked Congress for $10 billion in additional tax revenues to combat wartime inflation and hold down the national debt. When Congress passed a bill providing less than one billion, the famous Roosevelt temper flared, and he sent the bill back with a stinging veto message on February 22. This was the first time a revenue measure had been killed by a President, which by itself would have been a shock, but Roosevelt’s words were more shocking still. “The bill,” he wrote, “is replete with provisions that not only afford indefensible special privileges to favored groups, but set dangerous precedents.” It is, he added, “a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.”
Congress was stunned by the rebuke and then deeply angered. Barkley, in an impassioned speech that left him in tears, declared that the integrity of Congress had been wrongfully impugned, its members insulted, and the leadership demeaned. Immediately he announced his resignation as majority leader and withdrew. The next morning Roosevelt sent a telegram—instantly famous as the “Dear Alben” wire—in which he said he had no intention of attacking either the integrity of Congress or of its leadership. “You and I may differ …,” he said, “but that does not mean we question one another’s good faith.” He urged Barkley to return to the Senate and seek his leadership post. Barkley did and was unanimously re-elected majority leader. On February 25 Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto. Later in the year, when the time came for Roosevelt to choose a running mate for the coming election, he ignored Barkley, who until February had been the front-runner, and gave the nod to Senator Harry Truman of Missouri.
Truman stands third on the list of Presidents who have cast the most vetoes. In seven years he exercised the veto 250 times (180 regular, 70 pocket). He was overridden twelve times, ranking him after Andrew Johnson as the President most often overridden. Among the major pieces of legislation passed over his veto were the TaftHartley Act in 1947, the McCarran-Wood Internal Security Act of 1950, which required the registration of Communist Party members, and the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, which established screening measures to keep out “subversive” aliens and empowered the Attorney General to deport naturalized Communists.
Lyndon Johnson, who vetoed 30 bills (16 regular vetoes, 14 pocket) may be the first President to have withdrawn a veto after he had earlier cast it. On August 24, 1964, he pocket-vetoed a bill that authorized the United States Court of Claims to hear a specifically identified suit against the government. Congress was in recess for the Democratic National Convention, and legally the bill was dead. Nonetheless two days later, and after Johnson had already drafted a message of disapproval to send to Congress, he changed his mind. He decided to sign the bill and leave the question of its constitutionality to the federal courts.
Richard Nixon cast 39 vetoes through November, 1973 (22 regular, 17 pocket). He has been overridden five times. Like the majority of Presidents since Jackson —Lincoln is the one notable exception —he sees the veto as a weapon to shape public policy in accordance with his own political ideology. Lincoln, by contrast, shared Washington’s view that the veto was a constitutional check and not an instrument of personal judgment. Virtually all Mr. Nixon’s vetoes have been directed to spending measures and particularly to social programs of which he disapproves. Early in March, 1973, for example, he pledged that he would veto fifteen funding bills then before Congress and to date has vetoed four of them. The bills, said his chief aide, John Ehrlichman, were a “nine billion dollar dagger aimed at the heart of the American tax-payer.” Were any of the bills to pass by override, Ehrlichman added, the President would impound the funds. This last statement is in line with the one significant addition Nixon has made to the veto power. Where earlier Presidents have accepted the override as binding, Nixon has thus far shown no disposition to do so. In the most controversial affair to develop to date he vetoed a water-pollution bill in October, 1972, but within hours the House overrode by a vote of 366-11 and the Senate by 74-0. Citing the “staggering costs” of the $24.6-billion measure over the next three years as justification, Nixon ignored the override and impounded the funds, which are currently the subject of court action.
Similarly, when Congress threatened a bill to cut off funding for the air war in Cambodia in the summer of 1973, Mr. Nixon announced that he would not pass the measure and would seek to get around it if he were overridden. A constitutional clash was avoided when the House sustained his veto and Nixon approved a compromise bill on July 1. Whether there will be other confrontations between Mr. Nixon and Congress on the veto power remains to be seen.