In 1985, President Ronald Reagan told the American Business Conference, “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead—make my day.” This pithy borrowing of Clint Eastwood’s famous line in “Dirty Harry” frames the president’s veto power as a power, indeed, and highlights the role that Congress plays in facilitating the exercise of that power.
Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Con-stitution outlines requirements for federal legislation, including the role of the president to veto bills, very much in terms of a legislative process, and not a power of the Executive. In fact, the word “veto,” Latin for “I forbid,” does not appear:
Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it becomes a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to the House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.
Pursuant to this constitutional mandate to return “Objections” to Congress, U.S. presidents have issued veto statements when they veto bills. Here, Teaching Legal Docs looks at the veto statement as a primary source and legal document, unpacking its format and typical content, and discussing the protocols surrounding their creation.
When are Veto Statements Issued?
When discussing presidential vetoes, it is important to distinguish between what is known as a regular, or “qualified veto,” and a “pocket veto.” Qualified vetoes are the traditional vetoes that
When discussing presidential vetoes, it is important to distinguish between what is known as a regular, or “qualified veto,” and a “pocket veto.” Qualified vetoes are the traditional vetoes that come to mind—when a president actively refuses to sign a piece of legislation and returns it to Congress within ten days. Pocket vetoes are more passive, in that a president allows an unsigned bill to languish, putting it aside, or “in a pocket,” until the Congressional term ends, at which point there is no Congress in session to receive the vetoed legislation, thus the bill never becomes law. Presidential veto statements are issued with qualified vetoes only, not with pocket vetoes.
"The Constitution mandates that regular vetoes be issued within ten days of a President receiving a bill. So, if a President chooses to veto the legislation, the bill is returned to the issuing house in Congress, along with a veto statement explaining the reason(s) for the veto."
The Constitution mandates that regular vetoes be issued within ten days of a president receiving a bill. So, if a president chooses to veto the legislation, the bill is returned to the issuing house in Congress, along with a veto statement explaining the reason(s) for the veto. The statements are generally presented in writing. President Franklin Roosevelt also chose to deliver at least one of his veto statements in person, however, in 1935. He addressed the House of Representatives, objecting to the Bonus Bill. Both a written statement and video of him reading the statement exist in archives.
It follows, then, that the frequency of veto statements depends on the number of vetoes that a president issues. Since 1792, there have been 2,974 vetoes of Congressional bills. George Washington issued the first presidential veto, related to an appropriations bill, and the first veto statement, on April 5, 1792. Franklin Roosevelt issued the most vetoes across a presidency (1933-1945; 635), but Grover Cleveland issued the most vetoes in one term (1885-1889; 414). Presidents Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), and, so far, Donald Trump (2017), issued no vetoes, or veto statements.
What Is in a Veto Statement?
Presidential veto messages are considered among the “Presidential Memoranda” that a president might issue, along-side other memoranda, which typically issue directives about administration of the federal government. The format of presidential veto statements is very similar to that of other presidential memoranda in that there is a standard heading at the beginning of the document, and presidential signature at the end.
The heading typically includes the date that the statement is issued, and a heading, “Veto Message from the President,” followed by a notation indicating the legislation. In the example pictured, it’s “S.2040,” or Senate bill 2040. This was the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which President Barack Obama vetoed on September 23, 2016. The statement is then addressed to the appropriate house in Congress: “To the Senate of the United States,” for example.
The body of the presidential veto statement includes an explanation of why the president is vetoing the legislation. It might also include some context for the president’s perspective, or other personal remarks relevant to the explanation. The explanation could cite one or more concerns or conflicts with constitutional principles, existing federals statutes, or Supreme Court precedent. Statements vary in their length and complexity.
In the example here, the explanation spans several paragraphs of text. President Obama offers three reasons for the veto, citing U.S. law under a Congressional statute, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act; concerns of constitutional and international law about sovereignty and sovereign immunity; and foreign policy customs.
Presidential veto statements include at least one sentence explicitly objecting to or vetoing the proposed legislation. In the example here, it appears at the end: “For these reasons, I must veto the bill.” In the case of George Washington’s first veto, he did not use the word “veto” at all, but clarifies “objections” in the opening paragraph. Other presidents discuss “withholding approval of the bill.” Use of the term “veto” in presidential veto statements appears to be a late twentieth century development, but certainly the effects and intentions have appeared across American history.
Regardless of how the president expresses objections to the proposed legislation in the document, the veto statement is, lastly, signed and dated.
What Happens after the Presidential Veto?
Once the president issues a veto statement, it is sent to Congress with the vetoed bill. The veto statement also becomes public record, like other documents issued during a presidency. Veto statements are archived, including online, by the White House, the National Archives, and special archives, such as the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Constitutional protocols then take effect. Congress might override the veto with a vote, which the Congressional Research Service estimated in 2016 has happened to just 4% of Presidential vetoes in U.S. history. The first President to experience Congressional override of a veto was John Tyler (1841-1845), on March 3, 1845. Andrew Johnson has the distinction of being the “most overridden” president (1865-1869), with 15 of his 21 vetoes overturned by Congressional votes. If Congress does not override the veto, then the proposed legislation simply dies, although Congress might introduce new or revised legislation.
"Presidential veto statements provide primary source windows into U.S. history, government, and the rule of law under the U.S. Constitution. They function very practically as intended, and provide explanations for a president’s veto in historical moments."
What Can We Learn?
Presidential veto statements provide primary source windows into U.S. history, government, and the rule of law under the U.S. Constitution. They function very practically as intended, and provide explanations for a president’s veto in historical moments. They also help to illustrate the separation of powers protocols outlined in the Constitution by making visible in a tangible way how the legislative and executive branches are to work together. They serve as reminders and indicators of executive power in American government, especially if one analyzes the content of presidential veto statements over time, as some legal historians have attempted to do. Presidential veto statements also serve as often quiet reminders of contingencies in history, as significant bills fail to become law due to presidential veto or become law despite a presidential veto. These opportunities for primary source analysis can provide rich learning experiences for those studying the presidency, Congress, and, more broadly, law and American government.