Legislative Powers of the President of the United States

President Trump signing his first executive order
White House Pool / Getty Images

The President of the United States is commonly referred to as the most powerful person in the free world, but the legislative powers of the president are strictly defined by the Constitution and by a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. The legislative powers of the president are derived from Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, which states that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed...”

Approving Legislation

Although it is the responsibility of Congress to introduce and pass legislation, it is the president's duty to either approve those bills or reject them. Once the president signs a bill into law, it goes immediately into effect unless there is another effective date noted. Only the Supreme Court may remove the law, by declaring it unconstitutional.

The president may also issue a signing statement at the time he signs a bill. The presidential signing statement may simply explain the purpose of the bill, instruct the responsible executive branch agencies on how the law should be administered or express the president's opinion on the law's constitutionality.

In addition, the actions of presidents have contributed to the five "other" ways the Constitution has been amended over the years.

Finally, when presidents sign legislation, they can and often do attach an enforceable “signing statement” to the bill, in which they can express their concerns about certain provisions of the bill without vetoing it and define which sections of the bill they actually intend to enforce. While critics of bill signing statements argue that they give presidents the virtual power of the line-item veto, the power to issue them has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1986 decision in the case of Bowsher v. Synar, which held that “... interpreting a law enacted by Congress to implement the legislative mandate is the very essence of 'execution' of the law.”

Vetoing Legislation

The president may also veto a specific bill, which Congress can override with a two-thirds majority of the number of members present in both the Senate and the House when the override vote is taken. Whichever chamber of Congress originated the bill may also rewrite the legislation after the veto and send it back to the president for approval.

The president has a third option, which is to do nothing. In this case, two things can happen. If Congress is in session at any point within a period of 10 business days after the president receives the bill, it automatically becomes law. If Congress does not convene within 10 days, the bill dies and Congress cannot override it. This is known as a pocket veto.

Another form of veto power presidents have often asked for, but have never been granted, is the “line item veto.” Used as a method of preventing often-wasteful earmark or pork barrel spending, the line-item veto would give presidents the power to reject only individual provisions — line items — in spending bills without vetoing the rest of the bill. To the disappointment of many presidents, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held the line item veto to be an unconstitutional infringement on the exclusive legislative powers of Congress to amend bills. 

Proposing Legislation

The president is also authorized to propose new legislation. Presidents often outline their administration's legislative agenda shortly after taking office. In early 2021, for example, President Joe Biden detailed the legislative framework for his Build Back Better Plan representing the largest national public investments in social, infrastructure improvement, and environmental programs since the New Deal legislation of the 1930s Great Depression.

Biden’s Build Back Better Plan agenda proposed three key pieces of legislation: the American Rescue Plan (ARP), a COVID-19 economic relief bill, and the American Jobs Plan (AJP) to address long-needed infrastructure needs and reduce America's contributions to the destructive effects of climate change, and the American Families Plan (AFP), funding a variety of social policy initiatives, some of which—such as paid family leave—had never before been enacted nationally in the United States.

The $1.9 trillion ARP was signed into law on March 11, 2021. Some provisions of the AJP's infrastructure improvement goals were diverted into the separate Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law on November 15, 2021. Other aspects of the AJP, such as climate change remediation and home health care reform, were then rolled into the American Families Plan (AFP) to form the Build Back Better Act. While the bill passed in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, it failed in the evenly divided Senate, where it was opposed by two key Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. 

Lengthy negotiations between Senators Manchin and Sinema, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer resulted in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which incorporated some of the Build Back Better Act's climate change, healthcare, and tax reform proposals while excluding its social safety net proposals. The $378 billion Inflation Reduction Act aims to curb inflation by reducing the deficit, lowering prescription drug prices, and investing in domestic energy production while promoting clean energy. It was passed by Congress and signed into law on August 16, 2022.

No Congressional Approval Needed

There are two ways that presidents can enact initiatives without congressional approval. Presidents may issue a proclamation, often ceremonial in nature, such as naming a day in honor of someone or something that has contributed to American society. A president may also issue an executive order, which has the full effect of law and is directed to federal agencies that are charged with carrying out the order. Examples include Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order for the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces and Dwight Eisenhower's order to integrate the nation's schools.

Congress cannot directly vote to override an executive order in the way they can a veto. Instead, Congress must pass a bill canceling or changing the order in a manner they see fit. The president will typically veto that bill, and then Congress can try to override the veto of that second bill. The Supreme Court can also declare an executive order to be unconstitutional. Congressional cancellation of an order is extremely rare.

The President's Legislative Agenda

Once a year, the president is required to provide the full Congress with a State of the Union address. At this time, the president often lays out his legislative agenda for the next year, outlining his legislative priorities for both Congress and the nation at large.

In order to help get his legislative agenda passed by Congress, the president will often ask a specific lawmaker to sponsor bills and lobby other members for passage. Members of the president's staff, such as the vice president, his chief of staff and other liaisons with Capitol Hill also will lobby.

Edited by Robert Longley

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Trethan, Phaedra. "Legislative Powers of the President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/legislative-powers-of-the-president-3322195. Trethan, Phaedra. (2023, April 5). Legislative Powers of the President of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/legislative-powers-of-the-president-3322195 Trethan, Phaedra. "Legislative Powers of the President of the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/legislative-powers-of-the-president-3322195 (accessed June 10, 2023).