Only the President Can Veto Bills

The Veto is A Key Part of 'Checks and Balances'

Two thumbs pointing downward.
Effect of a Presidential Veto. Bettemann / Getty Images

The U.S. Constitution grants the President of the United States the sole power to veto—say “No”—to bills passed by both houses of Congress. A vetoed bill can still become law if Congress overrides the president’s action by obtaining a supermajority vote of two-thirds of the members of both the House (290 votes) and the Senate (67 votes). 

While the Constitution does not contain the phrase “presidential veto,” Article I requires that every bill, order, resolution or other act of legislation passed by the Congress must be presented to the president for his or her approval and signature before it officially becomes law.

The presidential veto clearly illustrates the function of the system of “checks and balances” designed for the U.S government by the nation’s Founding Fathers. While the president, as head of the executive branch, can “check” to the power of the legislative branch by vetoing bills passed by Congress, the legislative branch can “balance” that power by overriding the president’s veto.

The first presidential veto occurred on April 5, 1792, when President George Washington vetoed an apportionment bill that would have increased the membership of the House by providing for additional representatives for some states. The first successful congressional override of a presidential veto took place on March 3, 1845, when Congress overrode President John Tyler’s veto of a controversial spending bill. 

Historically, Congress succeeds in overriding a presidential veto in less than 7% of its attempts.For example, in its 36 attempts to override vetoes issued by President George W. Bush, Congress succeeded only once.

The Veto Process

When a bill is passed by both the House and Senate, it is sent to the president's desk for his signature. All bills and joint resolutions, except those proposing amendments to the Constitution, must be signed by the president before they become law. Amendments to the Constitution, which require a two-thirds vote of approval in each chamber, are sent directly to the states for ratification. When presented with legislation passed by both houses of Congress, the president is constitutionally required to act on it in one of four ways: sign it into law within the 10-day period prescribed in the Constitution, issue a regular veto, let the bill become law without his signature or issue a "pocket" veto.

Regular Veto

When Congress is in session, the president may, within the 10-day period, exercise a regular veto by sending the unsigned bill back to the chamber of Congress from which it originated along with a veto message stating his reasons for rejecting it. Currently, the president must veto the bill in its entirety. He may not veto individual provisions of the bill while approving others. Rejecting individual provisions of a bill is called a "line-item veto." In 1996, Congress passed a law granting President Clinton the power to issue line-item vetoes, only to have the Supreme Court declare it unconstitutional in 1998.

Bill Becomes Law Without President's Signature

When Congress is not adjourned, and the president fails to either sign or veto a bill sent to him by the end of the 10-day period, it becomes law without his signature.

The Pocket Veto

When Congress is adjourned, the president can reject a bill by simply refusing to sign it. This action is known as a "pocket veto," coming from the analogy of the president simply putting the bill in his pocket and forgetting about it. Unlike a regular veto, Congress has neither the opportunity or constitutional authority to override a pocket veto.

How Congress Responds to a Veto

When the President returns a bill to the chamber of Congress from which it came, along with his objections in the form of a veto message, that chamber is constitutionally required to "reconsider" the bill. The Constitution is silent, however, on the meaning of "reconsideration." According to the Congressional Research Service, procedure and tradition govern the treatment of vetoed bills. "On receipt of the vetoed bill, the President's veto message is read into the journal of the receiving house. After entering the message into the journal, the House of Representatives or the Senate complies with the constitutional requirement to 'reconsider' by laying the measure on the table (essentially stopping further action on it), referring the bill to committee, postponing consideration to a certain day, or immediately voting on reconsideration (vote on override)."

Overriding a Veto

Action by both the House and the Senate is required to override a presidential veto. A two-thirds, supermajority vote of the Members present is required to override a presidential veto. If one house fails to override a veto, the other house does not attempt to override, even if the votes are present to succeed. The House and Senate may attempt to override a veto anytime during the Congress in which the veto is issued. Should both houses of Congress successfully vote to override a presidential veto, the bill becomes law. According to the Congressional Research Service, from 1789 through 2004, only 106 of 1,484 regular presidential vetoes were overridden by Congress.

The Veto Threat

Presidents often publicly or privately threaten Congress with a veto in order to influence the content of a bill or prevent its passage. Increasingly, the “veto threat” has become a common tool of presidential politics and is often effective in shaping U.S. policy. Presidents also use the veto threat in order to prevent Congress from wasting time crafting and debating bills they intend to veto under any circumstances. 

The Long-Denied Line-Item Veto 

Since before the American Civil War, a series of U.S. presidents have unsuccessfully sought the power to issue “line-item” vetoes. A line-item veto, or partial veto, would allow the president to reject individual provisions of a bill passed by Congress without vetoing the entire bill. For example, the president could use a line-item veto to block funding for particular discretionary programs or projects in the spending bills comprising the annual federal budget

The line-item veto power was briefly granted during the presidency of Bill Clinton when Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. However, the law, intended to control “pork-barrel spending,” was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1998 case of Clinton vs. City of New York. Before the ruling, President Clinton had used the line-item veto to cut 82 items from the federal budget. More recently, on February 8, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have granted presidents a limited form of the line-item veto. However, the bill was never considered in the Senate. 

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Longley, Robert. "Only the President Can Veto Bills." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Only the President Can Veto Bills. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Only the President Can Veto Bills." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).