The veto process granted by the Constitution ensures that the legislative and executive branches have to share power when it comes to new federal legislation — while a president might veto a bill, one with popular support can still become law with a super-majority of congressional support from both chambers.
Only 7 of our presidents chose not to use their constitutional prerogative to veto congressional legislation, with 2 being less-than-full term presidents.
But even stranger, it took Congress 55 years to override its first presidential veto — an appropriations bill during lame-duck President Tyler’s fill-in presidency. And while this is a mid-19th century historical novelty, it still has lessons for today — ones our legislators should take to heart.
Dealing With The President That Nobody Wanted
Had President Harrison lived to fill his term, Vice President Tyler would probably be one of the most forgotten in U.S. history.
Tyler was a political mess, being a member of at least 4 different political parties at various points during his career.
Tyler’s own party, the Democratic Party, had ostracized and marginalized him in party politics over various clashes during his time in Congress. Tyler found himself as the running mate of Whig candidate William Harrison.
Whigs didn’t like his policies either, but the Democrats weren’t ready to ever accept him back — leading Tyler to eventually fashion himself as an ‘Independent Democrat.’ This unfortunately seemed to be code for the idealization of party rhetoric without loyalties or connections to get anything done.
Only 7 of our presidents chose not to use their constitutional prerogative to veto congressional legislation.
But as vice president, he seemed content to discharge his duties from his home — taking almost no active role in the formation of the new executive department.
Even worse, after Harrison’s death, his interest changed and he seemed intent to micromanage the office of president, eliminating Harrison’s practice of the cabinet forming policy through majority consensus.
Turmoil within the executive department coupled with an unsympathetic Congress (the Senate dominated by Whigs, the House equally dominated by Democrats) ensured that Tyler had almost no say in the outcome of national politics — making him possibly the only lame-duck president for a nearly full term.
About the only thing on Tyler’s agenda to get ‘done’ was the annexation of Texas, a lengthy process completed during his last week in office — but Congress forced several concessions on Tyler’s plan for annexation as well.
Tyler used what power he possessed, using the veto more than 8 of 9 of his predecessors combined — his only predecessor with more vetoes was Andrew Jackson.
The veto override came in his last days as president — with Tyler hoping to leave considerable executive control over the construction of new Coast Guard ships to his successor.
Things ‘Can’ Get Done in a Sharply Divided Congress
As far as a partisan divide, it doesn’t get much sharper than the 28th Congress. The Whigs controlled the Senate (27 – 24), while the Democrats controlled the House (144 – 79).
In modern politics, this would be a recipe for disaster — gridlock that could never be overcome, especially with no party able to form cloture in the Senate.
And not an ‘incredible’ amount of legislation took place, but this was still pre-Civil War America where federalism had simply not taken firm root in national politics. Even so, significant events included:
- Entrance of Florida as a state;
- Approval for Iowa to enter as a state;
- Approval for Texas to enter as a state;
- The first commercial treaty with China;
- The setting of the modern date for presidential elections; and, of course
- The divided Congress unifying to override the first presidential veto.
The vetoed law was a very simple one, only one sentence long — unheard of in modern legislative shenanigans of attaching amendments to everything that gets passed into law — making it clear that Congress was not about to give up its power of the purse, even when it came to self-sufficient, revenue producing departments of the government:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That no revenue cutter or revenue steamer shall hereafter be built (excepting such as are now in the course of building and equipment) nor purchased, unless an appropriation be first made, by law, therefor. An Act relating to revenue cutters and steamers.
In modern terms, this act forbade the executive department from building new Coast Guard vessels without the appropriation being made by Congress.
Taxes during this time period were almost exclusively tied to tariffs and duties, and the Coast Guard played a significant role in enforcement.
Tyler vetoed this, wanting to preserve for his successor the power to expand executive functions — and he almost got his way.
With a stopped-clock providing valuable extra time before the stroke of midnight on March 3, 1845, the Congress was able to get the final votes to override Tyler’s veto in the last hour of the session (prior to the 20th Amendment, Congress ‘expired’ on March 3, until the new session was seated).
2016 and Beyond
In modern politics, Presidents Obama and George W. Bush used the veto power far less than their predecessors — even with Congresses so divided that overrides were unlikely (but still 4 for Bush, 1 for Obama).
The real lessons for modern times is that even with a president that a politically-divided Congress doesn’t want to work with, significant, meaningful legislation can still happen — that partisanship and popularity have nothing to do with the business of the nation.
President Obama faced incredible criticism from the conservatives during his presidency, President-elect Trump will almost certainly face much of the same during his term of office — but the inability to work together for the betterment of the nation has become too personalized and much too rigidly maintained along ideological party lines.
And in the end, the Congress must transcend party politics when a presidential veto is on the wrong side of public interest — not everything in Washington should revolve around party loyalty.
Because the veto power is one of the most powerful constitutionally granted checks in our government and one of the hardest to overcome.
When Congress refuses to stand up to this power for the betterment of the nation, it only becomes a tool for despotism by a different name.