Override Veto: Congress Versus the President


Camila and her sisters are trying to convince their parents that they should get take-out for dinner. They made a list of places they could get food from and gave it to their parents, but their parents refused, giving them back the list. Upset, Camila and her sisters decide that since they make up the majority in the household, they should be allowed to do it anyway, and they call to place the order.


Camila’s parents probably won’t be too happy with her and her sisters. Still, their decision to override their parents’ choice because they are the majority is similar to an override veto. Congress uses these vetoes when the President has decided not to sign a bill that Congress agreed on, similar to the list of restaurants Camila and her sisters submitted to their parents. When this happens, Congress can attempt to override the President’s decision.

Override Veto

An override veto is a two-thirds majority vote that Congress can pass to override a presidential veto. It is part of the system of checks and balances designed to keep any one branch of the government from becoming too powerful. When the President refuses to sign a bill that Congress has passed, Congress can attempt to override that decision. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate need to pass the veto with a two-thirds majority, or supermajority, vote. As of 2020, only 7.1% of presidential vetoes have been overridden, demonstrating its difficulty.

How It Works

While the word “veto” does not appear in the Constitution, Article One, Section Seven, Clause Two outlines the President’s ability to refuse to sign legislation. The Framers of the Constitution thus furthered the system of checks and balances they had designed, separating the three branches of government and keeping their power in check. Here, the President can keep Congress in check by refusing to sign bills they believe are unconstitutional or unjust. In turn, Congress can check that power by still passing the bill if there is overwhelming support. The President has no power to shape legislation, but even the threat of a presidential veto is enough to affect the political landscape. In doing so, the President can get legislators to develop the bill into something more favorable.

If the President does not sign the bill within ten days, excluding Sundays, they have vetoed it, and it goes back to Congress. This action is called a regular veto. However, there is an exception. If Congress is no longer in session, then there is no time limit. The President just doesn’t have to sign the bill, and they have vetoed it. This type of veto is called a pocket veto and has been the subject of debate over the years. Some legislators have argued that it is unjust for the President to be able to veto a bill and not allow Congress the chance to override that decision, as there may be overwhelming support for the bill that the President is ignoring. Still, 42% of all presidential vetoes from 1789 to 2004 have been pocket vetoes, though their popularity has decreased. As of 2020, the last pocket veto was taken in 1997 by President Bill Clinton. 

The History

The override veto’s history goes back to the Constitution, but it wasn’t until 1845 that Congress successfully used this power. President John Tyler had refused to sign a bill that prohibited the President from authorizing the building of Coast Guard ships without approved appropriations from Congress. It was Congress’s final day in session, and the Senate overturned the veto with one dissenting vote before turning it over to the House. The House took longer to decide, and the debate went on past midnight. Since Congress was then no longer technically in session, Representative Thomas Bayly wanted to stop all proceedings. However, the Speaker of the House refused to do so, as the House was in the middle of voting. The motion passed, 126-31, and Congress overrode President Taylor’s veto.

The President who has had the most number of presidential vetoes overridden is Andrew Johnson, who had fifteen of his twenty-nine vetoes overridden by Congress. Despite vetoing 635 pieces of legislation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt only had nine of those vetoes overridden. While the number of his overridden vetoes is the same as Ronald Reagan’s, the percentage is significantly different and essential to keep in mind. Reagan used his presidential veto powers 78 times, meaning that Congress overrode one percent of Roosevelt’s vetoes and twelve percent of Reagan’s.

Applying It

Override vetoes serve as an integral part of the system of checks and balances designed to ensure the American government system functions as the Framers intended it to. However, some argue that the power of presidential veto gives one person a large amount of power in the legislative process, even if the President cannot directly shape legislation. In 2019, President Donald Trump vetoed a congressional resolution that blocked his national emergency declaration. His original declaration allowed the administration to spend billions of dollars constructing a wall between Mexico and the U.S. after Congress denied the full amount Trump demanded in 2018. Despite attempts to override the veto, both the House and Congress failed to reach a two-thirds majority, with few Republicans joining Democrats in vetoing.

Presidential vetoes, and Congress’s override vetoes, play a significant role in American politics. When shaping legislation, Congress must keep in mind how to get it passed in the House and the Senate, but also how to get the President to sign off on it. Legislators from the political party not in control of the White House often face more difficulty in this aspect of lawmaking. The President is less likely to veto a bill with broad support among the public. Still, there are always exceptions, and the override veto is meant to ensure that Congress balances out the President’s power over legislation.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think the Framers of the Constitution required a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate to override a presidential veto?
  2. Is there anything about the veto process that you would change? Why?
  3. Does the veto system help sustain the system of checks and balances, or does it grant too much power to the President? Explain your answer.


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Learn More

  1. Presidential Vetoes | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. history.house.gov, https://history.house.gov/Institution/Presidential-Vetoes/Presidential-Vetoes/. 
  2. Rybicki, Elizabeth. Veto Override Procedure in the House and Senate. RS22654, Congressional Research Service, 19 July 2010, https://www.archives.gov/files/legislative/resources/education/veto/veto-override.pdf.
  3. The First Congressional Override of a Presidential Veto | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. history.house.gov, https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1800-1850/The-first-congressional-override-of-a-presidential-veto/. 
  4. “Trump’s National Emergency Stands As House Fails To Override Veto.” NPR.Org. www.npr.org, https://www.npr.org/2019/03/26/706843365/trumps-national-emergency-stands-as-house-fails-to-override-veto.
  5. U.S. Senate: Vetoes, 1789 to Present. https://www.senate.gov/legislative/vetoes/vetoCounts.htm.