History and meaning of the Veto
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, United Kingdom, 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 may override a Presidential veto of legislation.
A veto only gives power to stop changes, not to adopt them. Thus a veto allows its holder to protect the status quo.
The institution of the veto, known as the intercessio, was adopted by the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC to enable the tribunes to protect the interests of the plebs (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 institution.
In the United Kingdom, the royal veto (“withholding Royal Assent”) was last exercised in 1708 by Queen Anne with the Scottish Militia Bill 1708.
The House of Lords used to have the power of veto. 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 cannot delay any bills set out in the governing party’s manifesto.
Veto according to the United States Constitution
All legislation passed by both houses of Congress must be presented to the President. This presentation is in the President’s capacity as Head of State.
If the President approves of the legislation, he signs it into law. According to Article 1. Section 7 of the Constitution, when the president chooses, if he does not approve, he must return the bill, 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 his objections to the legislation in writing, and the Congress is constitutionally required to consider them, and to reconsider the legislation. This action, in effect, is a veto.
If the Congress overrides the veto by a two-thirds majority 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 he chooses to sign it.
A bill can also become law without the President’s signature if, after it is presented to him, he simply fails to sign it within the ten days noted. If there are fewer than ten days left in the session before Congress adjourns, and if Congress does so adjourn before the ten days have expired in which the President might sign the bill, then the bill fails to become law.
This procedure, when used as a formal device, is called a pocket veto.
President George Washington
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 the office possessed certain recess and reserve powers that were not necessarily available to their predecessors.
It was only with the enactment of the United States Constitution (drafted 1787; ratified 1788; fully effective since March 4, 1789) that veto power was conferred upon the office of “President of the United States”.
This presidential veto power was first exercised on April 5, 1792 when President George Washington vetoed a bill outlining a new apportionment formula submitted by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Apportionment described how Congress divided seats in the House of Representatives among the states based on the US census figures.
President Washington thought the bill gave an unfair advantage to the northern states.
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Congress did not overrode a presidential veto (passed a bill into law notwithstanding Presidential objections) until March 3, 1845.