A veto (Latin for “I forbid”) is the power (used by an officer of the state, for example) to unilaterally stop an official action, especially the enactment of legislation. A veto can be absolute, as for instance in the United Nations Security Council, whose permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) can block any resolution, or it can be limited, as in the legislative process of the United States, where a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate will override a Presidential veto of legislation. A veto may give power only to stop changes (thus allowing its holder to protect the status quo), like the US legislative veto, or to also adopt them (an “amendatory veto”), like the legislative veto of the Indian President, which allows him to propose amendments to bills returned to Congress for reconsideration.
The concept of a veto body originated with the Roman offices of consul and tribune of the plebs. There were two consuls every year; either consul could block military or civil action by the other. The tribunes had the power to unilaterally block any action by a Roman magistrate or the decrees passed by the Roman Senate.
The institution of the veto, known to the Romans as the intercessio, was adopted by the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC to enable the tribunes to protect the mandamus interests of the plebeians (common citizenry) from the encroachments of the patricians, who dominated the Senate. A tribune’s veto did not prevent the senate from passing a bill but meant that it was denied the force of law. The tribunes could also use the veto to prevent a bill from being brought before the plebeian assembly. The consuls also had the power of veto, as decision-making generally required the assent of both consuls. If one disagreed, either could invoke the intercessio to block the action of the other. The veto was an essential component of the Roman conception of power being wielded not only to manage state affairs but to moderate and restrict the power of the state’s high officials and institutions.
In Westminster systems and most constitutional monarchies, the power to veto legislation by withholding the Royal Assent is a rarely used reserve power of the monarch. In practice, the Crown follows the convention of exercising its prerogative on the advice of its chief advisor, the prime minister.
Since the Statute of Westminster (1931), the United Kingdom Parliament may not repeal any Act of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on the grounds that is repugnant to the laws and interests of the United Kingdom. Other countries in the Commonwealth of Nations (not to be confused with the Commonwealth of Australia), such as Canada and New Zealand, are likewise affected. However, according to the Australian Constitution (sec. 59), the Queen may veto a bill that has been given royal assent by the Governor-General within one year of the legislation being assented to. This power has never been used. The Australian Governor-General himself or herself has, in theory, the power to veto, or more technically, withhold assent to, a bill passed by both houses of the Australian Parliament, and contrary to the advice of the prime minister. This may be done without consulting the sovereign as per Section 58 of the constitution:
When a proposed law passed by both Houses of the Parliament is presented to the Governor-General for the Queen’s assent, he shall declare, according to his discretion, but subject to this Constitution, that he assents in the Queen’s name, or that he withholds assent, or that he reserves the law for the Queen’s pleasure. The Governor-General may return to the house in which it originated any proposed law so presented to him and may transmit therewith any amendments which he may recommend, and the Houses may deal with the recommendation.
This reserve power is however, constitutionally arguable, and it is difficult to foresee an occasion when such a power would need to be exercised. It is possible that a Governor-general might so act if a bill passed by the Parliament was in violation of the Constitution. One might argue, however, that a government would be hardly likely to present a bill which is so open to rejection. Many of the viceregal reserve powers are untested, because of the brief constitutional history of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the observance of the convention that the head of state acts upon the advice of his or her chief minister. The power may also be used in a situation where the parliament, usually a hung parliament, passes a bill without the blessing of the executive. The governor-general on the advice of the executive could withhold consent from the bill thereby preventing its passage into law.
With regard to the six governors of the states which are federated under the Australian Commonwealth, a somewhat different situation exists. Until the Australia Act 1986, each state was constitutionally dependent upon the British Crown directly. Since 1986, however, they are fully independent entities, although the Queen still appoints governors on the advice of the state head of government, the premier. So the Crown may not veto (nor the UK Parliament overturn) any act of a state governor or state legislature. Paradoxically, the states are more independent of the Crown than the federal government and legislature. State constitutions determine what role a governor plays. In general the governor exercises the powers the sovereign would have, including the power to withhold the Royal Assent.
According to the Constitution Act, 1867, the Queen in Counsel (in practice the Cabinet of the United Kingdom) may instruct the Governor General to withhold the Queen’s assent, allowing the sovereign two years to disallow the bill, thereby vetoing the law in question. This was last used in 1873, and the power was effectively nullified by the Balfour Declaration of 1926.
Provincial viceroys, called “Lieutenants Governor” (plural) are able to reserve Royal Assent to provincial bills for consideration and possible disallowance by the Federal Cabinet; this clause was last invoked in 1961 by the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan.
In India, the president has three veto powers, i.e. absolute, suspension & pocket. The president can send the bill back to parliament for changes, which constitutes a limited veto that can be overridden by a simple majority. But the Bill reconsidered by the parliament becomes a law with or without the assents of President after 14 days. The president can also take no action indefinitely on a bill, sometimes referred to as a pocket veto. The president can refuse to assent, which constitutes an absolute veto.
In Spain, Article 91 of the Constitution provides that the King shall give his assent to laws passed by the Cortes Generales (the legislative power) within 15 days after their final passing by them. The King has no veto power over the passed laws, as his acts, per Article 56.3 of the Constitution, are null and void if not countersigned by the Prime Minister. Furthermore, Article 59.2 allows the Cortes Generales to declare the King barred and suspend him temporarily or remove him from the post given the case that he refuses to comply with his constitutional duties.
Article 99 of the Constitution states that the King shall nominate a candidate for Prime Minister after a general election or vacancy of the office of Prime Minister. However, Article 64.1 gives the President of the Congress of Deputies the power to veto the King’s choice, forcing him to try again, or to not nominate anyone and call for immediate elections.
Article 90.1 of the Constitution states that “Within two months after receiving the text, the Senate may, by a message stating the reasons for it, adopt a veto or approve amendments thereto. The veto must be adopted by overall majority”. A Senate veto can be overriden by an absolute majority vote of the Congress of Deputies, as explained in Article 90.2.
Section 6 of Article 134 of the Constitution allows the Government to refuse to implement a law passed by Cortes if it carries government spending or loss of revenue. This prerogative is commonly called veto presupuestario (in English: “budget veto”).
In the United Kingdom, the British monarch has two methods of vetoing a bill. Any bill that has been passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords becomes law only when formally approved by the monarch (or their official representative), in a procedure known as royal assent. Legally, the monarch can withhold that consent, thereby vetoing the bill. This power was last exercised in 1708 by Queen Anne to block the Scottish Militia Bill 1708. The method is now generally considered obsolete and royal assent is a formality.
The monarch has additional veto powers over bills which affect the royal prerogative or the monarch’s personal affairs (such as royal incomes or hereditary property). Those bills require Queen’s consent before they may even be debated by Parliament, as well as royal assent if they are passed. Queen’s consent is not obsolete and is occasionally withheld, though now only on the advice of the cabinet. An example was the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill in 1999, which received a first reading under the Ten Minute Rule, but was denied Queen’s consent for a second reading.
The House of Lords used to have an effective power of veto by refusing to concur in bills adopted by the House of Commons. However, reform first by a Liberal government and then by a Labour government has limited its powers. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 reduced its powers: they can now only amend and delay legislation. They can delay legislation for up to one year. Under the 1911 Act, money bills (those concerning finance) cannot be delayed, and under the Salisbury Convention, the Lords, by convention, cannot delay any bills set out in the governing party’s manifesto.
The President of the Philippines may refuse to sign a bill, sending the bill back to the house where it originated along with his objections. Congress can override the veto via a two-thirds vote with both houses voting separately, after which the bill becomes law. The president may also veto specific provisions on money bills without affecting other provisions on the same bill. The president cannot veto a bill due to inaction; once the bill has been received by the president, the chief executive has thirty days to veto the bill. Once the thirty-day period expires, the bill becomes law as if the president had signed it.
Proposed legislation (bills) that is passed by both houses of Congress is presented to the President, in their capacity as head of the Executive Branch of the U.S. federal government. Likewise, legislation passed by both houses of a U.S. state legislature (or by Nebraska’s unicameral legislature) are presented to the state governor.
If the President or governor approves of the bill, they sign it into law. According to Article 1. Section 7 of the Constitution, if the President does not approve of the bill and chooses not to sign, they may return it unsigned, within ten days, excluding Sundays, to the house of the United States Congress in which it originated, while the Congress is in session.
The President is constitutionally required to state any objections to the bill in writing, and the Congress is required to consider them, and to reconsider the legislation. Returning the unsigned bill to Congress constitutes a veto.
If the Congress overrides the veto by a two-thirds vote in each house, it becomes law without the President’s signature. Otherwise, the bill fails to become law unless it is presented to the President again and the President chooses to sign it. Historically, the Congress has overridden about 7% of presidential vetoes.
A bill becomes law without the President’s signature if it is not signed within the ten days allotted, unless there are fewer than ten days left in the session before Congress adjourns. If Congress adjourns before the ten days have passed during which the President might have signed the bill, then the bill fails to become law. This procedure, when used informally, is called a pocket veto.
The overall process is largely the same in the U.S. states.
Veto statement / veto message
Both the President of the United States and U.S. state governors usually issue a veto statement or veto message that provides their reasons for vetoing a measure when returning it to Congress or the state legislature, as required by the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, or by custom. Those statements do not have precedential value, although their reasoning may be respected within the Executive Branch, and can contribute to the American constitutional tradition. However, unlike a presidential signing statement, a veto statement does not carry much direct weight in the American legal system, because of its function: if Congress fails to override the veto, the bill and veto become legally irrelevant, but if the override succeeds, the veto message is not considered during subsequent executive implementation or judicial interpretation of the law.
The President or the state governor may sign the veto statement at a signing ceremony, often with media present, particularly for measures that they wish to disapprove of in a very public fashion.
Modifications declared unconstitutional
In 1983, the Supreme Court struck down the one-house legislative veto, on separation of powers grounds and on grounds that the action by one house of Congress violated the Constitutional requirement of bicameralism. The case was INS v. Chadha, concerning a foreign exchange student in Ohio who had been born in Kenya but whose parents were from India. Because he was not born in India, he was not an Indian citizen. Because his parents were not Kenyan citizens, he was not Kenyan. Thus, he had nowhere to go when his student visa expired because neither country would take him, so he overstayed his visa and was ordered to show cause why he should not be deported from the United States.
The Immigration and Nationality Act was one of many acts of Congress passed since the 1930s, which contained a provision allowing either house of that legislature to nullify decisions of agencies in the executive branch simply by passing a resolution. In this case, Chadha’s deportation was suspended and the House of Representatives passed a resolution overturning the suspension, so that the deportation proceedings would continue. This, the Court held, amounted to the House of Representatives passing legislation without the concurrence of the Senate, and without presenting the legislation to the President for consideration and approval (or veto). Thus, the Constitutional principle of bicameralism and the separation of powers doctrine were disregarded in this case, and this legislative veto of executive decisions was struck down.
In 1996, the United States Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. This act allowed the President to veto individual items of budgeted expenditures from appropriations bills instead of vetoing the entire bill and sending it back to Congress. However, this line-item veto was immediately challenged by members of Congress who disagreed with it. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 to declare the line-item veto unconstitutional. In Clinton v. City of New York (524 U.S. 417 (1998)), the Court found the language of the Constitution required each bill presented to the President to be either approved or rejected as a whole. An action by which the President might pick and choose which parts of the bill to approve or not approve amounted to the President acting as a legislator instead of an executive and head of state—and particularly as a single legislator acting in place of the entire Congress—thereby violating the separation of powers doctrine. Prior to this ruling, President Clinton had applied the line-item veto to the federal budget 82 times.
In 2006, Senator Bill Frist introduced the in the United States Senate. Rather than provide for an actual legislative veto, however, the procedure created by the Act provides that, if the President should recommend the rescission of a budgetary line item from a budget bill he previously signed into law—a power he already possesses pursuant to U.S. Const. Article II—the Congress must vote on his request within ten days. Because the legislation that is the subject of the President’s request (or “Special Message”, in the language of the bill) was already enacted and signed into law, the vote by the Congress would be ordinary legislative action, not any kind of veto—whether line-item, legislative or any other sort. The House passed this measure, but the Senate never considered it, so the bill expired and never became law.
In 2009, Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain introduced legislation of a limited version of the line-item veto. This bill would give the president the power to withdraw earmarks in new bills by sending the bill back to Congress minus the line-item vetoed earmark. Congress would then vote on the line-item vetoed bill with a majority vote under fast track rules to make any deadlines the bill had.
Intent of the Framers
The veto was constructed not as an absolute veto, but rather with limits, such as that Congress can override a veto, and that the President’s objections must be stated in writing. These limits would have been important in the minds of the Founders, given that in Britain the monarch retained an absolute veto (though by this time the power of withholding royal assent had become a formality, being last exercised in 1708, 68 years before independence). Further, as Elbridge Gerry explained in the final days of the Convention: “The primary object of the revisionary check of the President is not to protect the general interest, but to defend his own department.”
Under the Articles and Constitution
The Presidents of the Continental Congress (1774–1781) did not have the power of veto. The President could not veto an act of Congress under the Articles of Confederation (1781–1789), but he possessed certain recess and reserve powers that were not necessarily available to the predecessor President of the Continental Congress. It was only with the enactment of the United States Constitution (drafted 1787; ratified 1788; fully effective since 4 March 1789) that veto power was conferred upon the person titled “President of the United States”.
The presidential veto power was first exercised on 5 April 1792 when President George Washington vetoed a bill outlining a new apportionment formula. Apportionment described how Congress divides seats in the House of Representatives among the states based on the US census figures. President Washington’s stated reasons for vetoing the bill were (1) that it did not apportion representatives according to states’ relative populations and (2) that it gave eight states more than 1 representative per 30,000 residents, in violation of the Constitution.
The Congress first overrode a presidential veto (passed a bill into law notwithstanding the President’s objections) on March 3, 1845.
All U.S. states also have a provision by which legislative decisions can be vetoed by the governor. In addition to the ability to veto an entire bill as a “package”, many states allow the governor to exercise specialty veto authority to strike or revise portions of a bill without striking the whole bill.
- Amendatory veto
- Allows a governor to amend bills that have been passed by the legislature. Revisions are subject to confirmation or rejection by the legislature.
- Line item veto
- Allows a governor to remove specific sections of a bill (usually only spending bills) that has been passed by the legislature. Deletions can be overridden by the legislature.
- Pocket veto
- Any bill presented to a governor after a session has ended must be signed to become law. A governor can refuse to sign such a bill and it will expire. Such vetoes cannot be overridden.
- Reduction veto
- Allows a governor to reduce the amounts budgeted for spending items. Reductions can be overridden by the legislature.
- Package veto
- Allows a governor to veto the entire bill. Package vetoes can be overridden by the legislature.
Authority and process by state
|State||Veto powers||Veto override standard|
|Alabama||Amendatory, Pocket, Line Item, Package||Majority elected|
|Alaska||Reduction, Line Item, Package||Regular bills: 2⁄3 elected; Budget bills: 3⁄4 elected|
|Arizona||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected (Misc items have 3⁄4 elected standard)|
|Arkansas||Line Item, Package||Majority elected|
|California||Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Colorado||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Connecticut||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Delaware||Pocket, Line Item, Package||3⁄5 elected|
|Florida||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Georgia||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Hawaii||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Idaho||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Illinois||Amendatory, Reduction, Line Item (spending only), Package||3⁄5 elected for package, majority elected for reduction/line item, majority elected required to affirm amendments|
|Iowa||Pocket, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Kansas||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 membership|
|Kentucky||Line Item, Package||Majority elected|
|Louisiana||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Maine||Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Maryland||Line Item, Package||3⁄5 elected|
|Massachusetts||Amendatory, Pocket, Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected; normal majority required to accept amendments|
|Michigan||Pocket, Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Minnesota||Pocket, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected – min. 90 House, 45 Senate|
|Mississippi||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Missouri||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Montana||Amendatory, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Nebraska||Reduction, Line Item, Package||3⁄5 elected|
|New Hampshire||Package||2⁄3 present|
|New Jersey||Amendatory, Pocket, Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|New Mexico||Line Item, Package, Pocket||2⁄3 present|
|New York||Pocket, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|North Carolina||Package||3⁄5 present|
|North Dakota||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Ohio||Line Item, Package||3⁄5 elected|
|Oklahoma||Pocket, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Oregon||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Pennsylvania||Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Rhode Island||Line Item, Package||3⁄5 present|
|South Carolina||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|South Dakota||Amendatory, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Tennessee||Reduction, Line Item, Package||Constitutional majority (Majority elected)|
|Texas||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Utah||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
|Vermont||Pocket, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Virginia||Amendatory, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present (must include majority of elected members)|
|Washington||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|West Virginia||Reduction, Line Item, Package||Majority elected|
|Wisconsin||Amendatory, Reduction, Line Item, Package||2⁄3 present|
|Wyoming||Line Item, Package||2⁄3 elected|
European republican systems
Many European republics allow some form of presidential veto on legislation, which may vary, according to their constitutional form or by convention. These include France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
The President of Estonia may effectively veto a law adopted by Estonian parliament by refusing to proclaim it and demanding a new debate and decision. The parliament, in its turn, may override this veto by passing the law unamended for the second time (a simple majority is enough). In this case the President is obliged to proclaim the law or to request the Supreme Court of Estonia to declare the law unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court rules that the law does not violate the Constitution, the President may not object any more and is obliged to finally proclaim the law.
The President of France has only a very limited form of suspensive veto: when presented with a law, he or she can request another reading of it by the Assembly, but only once per law. Aside from it, the President can only refer bills to the Constitutional Council.
The President of Hungary has two options to veto a bill: submit it to the Constitutional Court if he suspects that it violates the constitution or send it back to the Parliament and ask for a second debate and vote on the bill. If the Court rules that the bill is constitutional or it is passed by the Parliament again, respectively, the President must sign it.
The President of Iceland may refuse to sign a bill, which is then put to referendum. This right was not exercised until 2004, by President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who has since refused to sign two other bills. The first bill was withdrawn, but the latter two resulted in referenda.
The President of Ireland may refuse to grant assent to a bill that he or she considers to be unconstitutional, after consulting the Council of State; in this case, the bill is referred to the Supreme Court, which finally determines the matter. This is the most widely used reserve power. The President may also, on request of a majority of Seanad Éireann (the upper house of parliament) and a third of Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), after consulting the Council of State, decline to sign a bill “of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained” in an ordinary referendum or a new Dáil reassembling after a general election held within eighteen months. This latter power has never been used because the government of the day almost always commands a majority of the Seanad, preventing the third of the Dáil that usually makes up the opposition from combining with it.
The President of Italy may request a second deliberation of a bill passed by Parliament before it is promulgated. This is a very weak form of veto as the Parliament can override the veto by an ordinary majority. The same provision exists in France and Latvia. While such a limited veto cannot thwart the will of a determined parliamentary majority, it may have a delaying effect and may cause the parliamentary majority to reconsider the matter. The President of Republic can also call a new election for parliament.
The President of Latvia may suspend a bill for a period of two months, during which it may be referred to the people in a referendum if a certain number of signatures are gathered. This is potentially a much stronger form of veto, as it enables the President to appeal to the people against the wishes of the Parliament and Government.
The President of Poland may submit a bill to the Constitutional Tribunal if he suspects that bill is unconstitutional or send it back to the Sejm for a second voting. If the Tribunal says that the bill is constitutional or if Sejm passes it by at least three-fifths of the votes, the President must sign the bill.
The President of Portugal may refuse to sign a bill or refer it, or parts of it, to the Constitutional Court. If the President refuses to sign bill without it being declared unconstitutional, the Assembly of the Republic (parliament) may pass it again, in which case it becomes law.
The President of Ukraine may refuse to sign a bill and return it to Parliament with his proposals. If the parliament agrees on his proposals, the President must sign the bill. Parliament may overturn a veto by a two-thirds majority. If Parliament overturns his veto, the President must sign the bill within 10 days.
In the constitution of Poland or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was an institution called the liberum veto. All bills had to pass the Sejm or “Seimas” (Parliament) by unanimous consent, and if any legislator voted nay on anything, this not only vetoed that bill but also dissolved that legislative session itself. The concept originated in the idea of “Polish democracy” as any Pole of noble extraction was considered as good as any other, no matter how low or high his material condition might be. It was never exercised, however, under the rule of the strong Polish royal dynasties, which came to an end in the mid-17th century. These were followed by an elective kingship. The more and more frequent use of this veto power paralyzed the power of the legislature and, combined with a string of weak figurehead kings, led ultimately to the partitioning and the dissolution of the Polish state in the late 18th century.
- Constitution of the Roman Republic
- Pocket veto
- Popular referendum
- United Nations Security Council veto power
- Jus exclusivae, a veto power exercised by certain Catholic monarchs by means of their crown-cardinals in papal conclaves to prevent papabili objectionable to them from being elected Pope.
- Sign into law
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