Eight Years, Twelve Vetoes: Why President Bush Chose to Ignore his Veto Power

By Jamie E. Kay
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 1/4 |
This article is part of the compilation, Years of Tumult: Retrospective Analyses of the George W. Bush Presidency, composed by a class of Northeastern Political Science students and edited by Chris Federici and Nicole Wilkins.

Long held as one of the most prized executive powers, the presidential veto in grants the sitting president the power to unilaterally halt any piece of legislation. Though the word “veto” does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution, it is generally accepted that Article I, Section VII grants the sitting president with this right. Specifically, the Constitution reads:

Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approves, he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider.1

As one of the most important powers given to the president, one must ask why any would take such a powerful tool for granted. For five and a half years, however, President Bush failed to use the veto even once. Not until July 19, 2006 did he finally veto legislation, halting a congressional bill that would lift certain funding restrictions for embryonic stem-cell research.2 This reluctance made President Bush the first president to go an entire four year term without using the veto in 239 years. The other veto-less presidents include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and James Garfield (four of whom served only partial terms).3 So what compelled George Bush to break away from the other thirty-six U.S. presidents and pass up the right to veto? One would think that the veto would align perfectly with the Bush style of governance. Bush painted himself as an action man and pushed hard for strong executive authority. The veto demonstrates one of the most potent uses of presidential power; so why did Bush continually pass up the chance say no to Congress?

Before looking at the vetoes, or lack thereof, during the Bush years, it may be helpful to look at the actual veto process in American . The United States Constitution states that if a president refuses to sign the bill into law, thus rendering it vetoed, he has ten days, excluding Sundays, to return the bill to either the Senate or the House of Representatives, depending on where it originated. His objections must be written, and they must be taken into consideration by both houses upon return. Once the bill is returned, the veto must be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses. If achieved, the bill becomes law even without the president’s signature. If either house fails to reach a two-thirds majority, it may choose to make changes to the bill and present it to the president again, or the bill will fail to become law.4

Though the president is traditionally required to either sign a bill or return it to Congress with his objections, unsigned within ten days, there is another method to vetoing legislation: the “pocket veto”. If the president does fail to return the bill within ten days, the bill will pass unsigned.5 Such a time limit is necessary to the legislative process as without it, the president could effectively halt any piece of legislation indefinitely.6 However, the president also has the ability to indirectly veto a bill. Article I, Section VII of the Constitution states that if unreturned the bill will become law “unless the Congress by their adjournment prevent its return, in which case it shall not be a law”.7 Thus, if Congress adjourns before the ten day period has concluded, and the president chooses not to sign the bill, it is in effect vetoed and is referred to as a “pocket veto”. A pocket veto, unlike a regular veto, cannot be overridden, making it an extremely useful tool in the president’s arsenal. President Bush used this power only once, compared to his father’s fifteen pocket vetoes and Reagan’s thirty-nine.8

The use of the presidential veto throughout can best be described as a bell-curve. Like President Bush, early presidents used the veto power hardly ever. The best explanation for this inactivity was simply that not very much legislation was passed at the time. Without fast-moving transportation or communication systems, bills took a considerably long time to construct. Additionally, because parties were not yet fully formed, early presidents enjoyed congresses that were more agreeable to their political desires and less likely to split down partisan lines.9

The first real significant use of the veto power came during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Like President Bush, Jackson was an ardent supporter of strong executive authority. He had numerous conflicts with Congress and sparked tremendous controversy by vetoing twelve bills, a large number for the time period.10 Use of the veto slowed after Jackson but grew exponentially after the , particularly in issues concerning reconstruction and the rebuilding of the Union. Many of these, however, tended to be private bills, asking for pensions for injured Civil War veterans. Believing many of them to be fraudulent, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland vetoed the majority of them.11

The use of the veto power exploded, however, with the outbreak of . Franklin Roosevelt, another strong executive, in his twelve years in office, vetoed 635 bills, by far the most of any president. Though Roosevelt enjoyed a Democratic majority in Congress, many historians believe that he used to veto primarily to keep Congress “in line” and assert his power as president.12Since Roosevelt, the number of vetoes issued by modern presidents has declined, though still remained somewhat stable, until, that is, the presidency of .13

Bush’s unwillingness to veto is particularly perplexing when examining his tenure as Texas governor. As governor, Bush was never shy to use the power of the veto. From 1995 through 1999, Bush vetoed ninety-seven bills, more than eight times the number vetoed in his presidency.14 This behavior, however, would not continue. For five and half years, Bush never used his veto power. It wasn’t until a few months into his second term that Bush would give his first hints of his intent to veto.

On May 24, 2005, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, a Congressional bill that would lift certain funding restrictions for embryonic stem-cell research, passed through the House of Representatives with a 238-194 vote. The president immediately threatened to veto the bill. However, two months later, the bill passed through the Senate with a 63-37 vote (four short of the sixty-seven votes needed to override a veto). The next day the bill was vetoed by the president.15

The day of the veto, Bush delivered a speech at a White House ceremony attended by mothers and children born from what President Bush dubbed “adopted” embryos, which had been left unused by fertility clinics. "These boys and girls are not spare parts," he told the crowd. "They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small collection of cells."16

The bill itself had pitted religious and socially conservative lawmakers against more moderate Republicans. Senator Arlen Spector, the key sponsor of the bill and a recent cancer survivor, as well as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate’s only physician, were both vocal in their disapproval of the president’s veto. Frist remarked, “Given the potential of this research and the limitations of the existing [human embryonic stem cell] lines eligible for federally funded research, I think additional lines should be made available."17

Though the Senate vote was narrowly below the needed number to override the bill, the vote in the House was far narrower (286 votes would have been needed). Ultimately, with only 235 House members voting to override the bill, Bush’s first veto prevailed.18

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