The veto is the power to block or reject a proposed decision. In Latin, the word veto literally means “I forbid.” The veto is generally an executive prerogative, as in the power of a chief executive to reject a bill or resolution that is proposed by the legislature. This power may also extend to an official authority or body, such as an international organization (e.g., the United Nations). While executive veto power is often discussed in conjunction with the authority granted to governors or presidents in the United States, it is a hallmark of a variety of separation-of-powers systems in other countries. The veto provides an important check on the power of the legislature in the lawmaking process.
In the United States, veto power is given to the chief executive by the U.S. Constitution. Even though this executive power has existed since America’s founding, its use was often construed narrowly. Prior to the administration of President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), the veto was not used by presidents to object to legislation that was viewed as questionable on policy grounds. Rather, legitimate use of the executive veto involved objecting to legislation that was either poorly drafted or clearly unconstitutional. Following Jackson’s presidency, however, this practice changed, and modern U.S. presidents routinely veto legislation to which they object for political reasons. In contemporary American politics, the incidence of presidential vetoes is almost always greater under divided government, where the executive is controlled by one political party and (at least one chamber of) the legislature by the other.
Although vetoes occur relatively rarely in the legislative process, scholars are drawn to study them because vetoes carry clear policy implications. Indeed, the use of the veto by an executive is an ideal example of negative agenda control. The veto creates an opportunity to block legislative action, but it does not give the executive the power to alter proposed legislation after the fact. Nonetheless, Charles Cameron (2000) asserts that chief executives regularly engage in bargaining with legislators in an attempt to shape legislative outcomes at various stages of the process. In many respects, a credible veto threat may be sufficient to force compliance on the part of reluctant legislators who would prefer not to prolong a legislative battle over a controversial bill or resolution. To avoid “losing” to the president, one or both chambers of the legislature may be willing to make concessions if the price of passage necessitates it.
Although veto power is usually associated with the executive office, legislatures may hold veto power as well. In a bicameral legislature where both chambers must pass legislation in identical form before it is sent to the executive for approval, for instance, either chamber can block legislation, which is the equivalent of a veto. Moreover, a veto does not always require action on the part of an executive to effectively block legislation. If the U.S. Congress sends a bill to the president and adjourns prior to the ten days given to the president to sign or veto the measure, the bill essentially dies through what is known as a pocket veto. Conversely, the measure will automatically become law without the president’s signature if Congress remains in session past the ten-day limit. Thus, inaction on the part of the executive still can have tangible legislative consequences, contingent on the behavior of the legislature.
Veto power is by no means absolute. Consistent with the notion of both shared and separated powers, the legislature is typically given the opportunity to override an executive veto if members can garner the necessary votes. The override authority granted to legislatures provides an opportunity for offsetting an executive veto in an attempt to alter policy outcomes. In many cases, a legislative override requires a supermajority. In the U.S. Congress, for instance, two-thirds of both chambers must successfully vote to override an executive veto. While most override attempts fail as a result of the supermajority requirement, David Rohde and Dennis Simon (1985) maintain that the uncertainty associated with a potentially successful override provides an important check on unilateral power on the part of the executive.
Ingberman, Daniel E., and Dennis A. Yao. 1991. Presidential Commitment and the Veto. American Journal of Political Science 35: 357–389.
Rohde, David W., and Dennis M. Simon. 1985. Presidential Vetoes and Congressional Response: A Study of Institutional Conflict. American Journal of Political Science 29: 397–427.
Spitzer, Robert J. 1988. The Presidential Veto: Touchstone of the American Presidency. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Jamie L. Carson
The refusal of an executive officer to assent to a bill that has been created and approved by the legislature, thereby depriving the bill of any legally binding effect.
Article I, Section 7, of the U.S. Constitution states that "every bill" and "every order, resolution or vote to which the concurrence of the Senate and the House of Representatives may be necessary" must be presented to the president for approval. If the president disapproves of the legislation and declines to sign the bill, he issues a veto, returning the bill unsigned to Congress. Similar provisions in state constitutions give governors the same veto power, and municipal charters often give the mayor the right to veto legislation from the city council.
The veto power gives the executive a central role in the legislative process. By threatening a veto before legislation is passed, the executive can force the legislature to compromise and pass amendments it would otherwise find unacceptable. Though there is great power in the veto, most executives use it cautiously, as overuse can antagonize the legislature and create political risk for the executive.
Under the Constitution the president has ten days (not counting Sundays) in which to consider legislation presented for approval. The president has three options: sign the bill, making it law; veto the bill; or take no action on the bill during the ten-day period. A veto can be over-ridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress. If the president takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law after ten days. If Congress adjourns before the ten days have expired and the president has not signed the bill,
however, the bill is said to have been subjected to a pocket veto. A pocket veto deprives Congress of the chance to override a formal veto. State governors have similar veto and pocket veto powers, and state legislatures usually are required to override vetoes by a two-thirds majority of both houses.
In the majority of states the governor also has the authority to select particular items from an appropriations bill and veto them individually. This authority, called the line-item veto, is popular because it allows the executive to cancel specific appropriations items from bills that are hundreds of pages long. The legislature can override the veto by a two-thirds majority vote.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Presidents ronald reagan and george h.w. bush called for a constitutional amendment that would provide the president with a line-item veto. After years of debate, Congress rejected the idea of enacting such an amendment and instead approved federal line-item veto authority in a 1996 statute known as the Line-Item Veto Act (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 691–692). The act gave the president the ability to cancel individual tax and spending measures included in federal legislation.
Members of Congress opposed to the act immediately filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the act was unconstitutional. In Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, 117 S.Ct. 2312, 138 L.Ed.2d 849 (1997), the Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the action and dismissed the case. A key point in the ruling was that a plaintiff had to show an actual injury because of the law. The senators and representatives had argued that the constitutional separationof powers had been violated by the act but the Court found this was not an actual injury. Therefore, the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction.
Two groups of plaintiffs then filed suit, arguing that they had been injured. One group included the City of New York, two hospital associations, one hospital, and two unions that represented health care employees. They challenged a line-item veto President bill clinton had made in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The other group was the Snake River Potato Growers, Inc., which consisted of approximately 30 potato growers located throughout Idaho. The collective opposed President Clinton's cancellation of a provision of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Both groups of plaintiffs argued that the line-item vetoes had deprived them of federal funds. The U.S. district court found that the parties had standing and that the act violated the Presentment Clause under Article I of the Constitution. The Supreme Court eventually resolved the matter in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417, 118 S. Ct. 2091, 141 L. Ed. 2d 393 (1998).
The Court, in a 6–3 vote, agreed that the Line-Item Veto Act, which empowered the president to cancel individual portions of bills, violated the Presentment Clause. Under the Presentment Clause, after a bill has passed both Houses, but "before it become[s] a Law," it must either be approved (signed) or returned (vetoed) by the president. By canceling only parts of the legislation, President Clinton had, in effect, amended the laws. The Court concluded that there was no constitutional authorization for the president to amend legislation at his discretion.
A widely used means of congressional over-sight has been the legislative veto. A legislative veto is a statutory device that subjects proposals and decisions of executive branch administrative agencies to additional legislative consideration. The legislature may disapprove agency action by a committee, one-house, or concurrent resolution.
Since it was first used in the 1930s, the legislative veto has been the subject of controversy. The legislative veto circumvents traditional bill-passing procedures in that the legislative action is not presented to the executive for approval. This veto has been defended on the ground that it is not a legislative act. In Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 103 S. Ct. 2764, 77 L. Ed. 2d 317 (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated legislative veto provisions involving immigration and naturalization on the ground that these provisions violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Despite Chadha, Congress has not systematically removed legislative veto provisions from federal statutes, and some states continue to use the legislative veto.
Cameron, Charles M. 2000. Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Lipson, G. V., ed. 2002. Presidential Vetoes: Challenges and Bibliography. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Novinka.
Mason, Edward Campbell. 1967. The Veto Power: Its Origin, Development, and Function in the Government of the United States, 1789–1889. New York: Russell & Russell.
ve·to / ˈvētō/ • n. (pl. -toes) a constitutional right to reject a decision or proposal made by a law-making body: the legislature would have a veto over appointments to key posts. ∎ such a rejection. ∎ a prohibition: his veto on our drinking after the meal was annoying.• v. (-toes, -toed) [tr.] exercise a veto against (a decision or proposal made by a law-making body): the president vetoed the bill. ∎ refuse to accept or allow: the film star often has a right to veto the pictures used for publicity.DERIVATIVES: ve·to·er n.ORIGIN: early 17th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘I forbid,’ used by Roman tribunes of the people when opposing measures of the Senate.