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What is a Veto?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A veto is a concept in the constitution of many governments and organizations. Essentially, it allows a member of a government or group to strike down a proposed measure. It is most often used in the context of legislation, but the power can also be found on corporate boards and even within the United Nations. In many cases, the power of the veto is an example of a system of checks and balances that ensures that powers are shared among members of government.

In Latin, the word means “I forbid,” and the concept dates back to Roman times. The power ensures that no branch of a government becomes too strong, because another branch can overrule its decisions. Usually, the terms of this power are clearly laid out in a governing document, to ensure that the power is not abused.

One of the most well known examples can be found in the United States. Proposed legislation starts in the Congress, and if a bill is approved by both the House and Senate, it is sent to the president for approval. The president has 10 days in which to review the bill. If he or she does nothing, the bill passes automatically into law. The president can also sign a bill, indicating approval, as is done with important legislation. In other instances, he or she may write “veto” on the bill, indicating that it is not approved, and the bill is sent back to Congress.

If the Congress disagrees with the veto, a two-thirds vote can override it. This ensures that a president cannot arbitrarily kill legislation. If the veto is not overturned, the bill is rewritten and submitted again. Usually, a president indicates his or her reasons for not approving the bill when returning it to the Congress, so that it can be rewritten effectively. A related concept, the “pocket veto,” occurs when Congress adjourns before the 10 day period is elapsed. If the president does nothing, the bill fails to become law.

Members of the United Nations security council also have veto power, ensuring that the balance of power is better shared between member nations. Many other governments around the world have adopted the concept, as have some companies. In all of these cases, a veto may simply delay the inevitable, but it does spark discussion and negotiation, which may make a difficult rule more agreeable to all parties.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By kentuckycat — On Aug 30, 2012

@titans62 - A lot of what Johnson vetoed concerned going against his party, with matters that were their top concern, which was Reconstruction after the Civil War.

All other presidents that vetoed bills, more or less had legitimate concerns and that is why they sent so many back and did not have very many overridden.

Congress can always make mistakes and the president is merely a person that is allowed to check Congress as the courts check everyone.

Some people do not see the need for vetoes, but this allows the legislative body from becoming too powerful.

Yes, the president is very powerful, but party pressure, and popular opinion usually keeps their vetoes honest and they are usually done for legitimate reasons.

I am sure there are controversial vetoes in the past and I am wondering if some of these can be discussed besides Johnson's?

By titans62 — On Aug 29, 2012

I have heard that the various presidents of the past have all had different opinions as far as their use of the veto is concerned.

George Washington did not believe too much in the veto and only used it twice and there have even been other presidents that have never vetoed a bill.

On the other hand, Grover Cleveland and Franklin Roosevelt vetoed hundreds of bills that they disagreed with and although they did have some of their vetoes overridden, there were very few, only about one percent, that were successfully overridden by Congress.

Andrew Johnson also holds the records for percentage of total vetoes overridden, as he vetoed 29 bills and had 15 overturned, which is also a record for vetoes overridden. Seems like Congress really did not agree much with his presidential philosophy using the veto.

By stl156 — On Aug 28, 2012

@Emilski - You are correct and many states held this type of veto in their state constitutions until the Supreme Court shot it down.

What some people do not realize though is that the power of the veto is not the same everywhere and there are some places in which the veto is a lot harder to overturn at the state level, as well as many where it is a lot easier to overturn.

I know in Texas that the Governor does not have a whole lot of power, as far as vetoes go, but in other states the Governor has more power in the matter.

I am really wondering if people from other states could chime in with what they know about vetoes, at their state's level, and we can all see the differences.

By Emilski — On Aug 27, 2012

Although the president can veto a bill, there are different ways in which they can do so.

There is the normal veto, in which the president simply rejects a bill and sends suggestions back to Congress, for them to make changes.

There is also the pocket veto in which the president can simply not act for ten days, while Congress is not in session, and they can simply neither confirm nor deny whether they disagreed with the bill or not.

There used to be a third type of veto, which is called the line item veto, in which the president could cross out parts of a bill and still be able to approve the rest.

This type of veto was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, as it was used mainly to appropriate money, and was seen to being biased as to who receives money from Congress.

By anon88100 — On Jun 03, 2010

can you give me an example of when a president has vetoed a bill?

By pixiedust — On Feb 08, 2009

Anon6906 - If the president vetoes a bill and the house overrides it (that means that at least 2/3rds of the House wanted to override the presidential veto), then it goes to the Senate. If at least 2/3rds of the Senate overrides the presidential veto, then the bill becomes law. If either 2/3rds of the Senate or the 2/3rds of the House doesn't vote to override the veto, then the bill dies.

I think that through the first 43 presidencies (i.e., through George W. Bush's terms) over 100 presidential vetoes have been overridden, out of a total of more than 2,500 presidential vetoes (that includes both regular vetoes and pocket vetoes).

By anon6906 — On Jan 12, 2008

If the president vetoes the bill and the house overrides it, What does the senate do?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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