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What Is a Presidential Veto?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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A presidential veto is the ability of a head of state, typically the president of a republic, to cancel or disrupt a piece of legislation. There are several reasons for vetoing legislation: unconstitutionality, being contrary to the beliefs of the president, and for being against the public good. The powers of the president and the types of veto he or she can employ vary from country to country. They range from sending legislation back for review to outright cancellation.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of president: the leader and the custodian. Leader presidents like those of France, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States are elected to create policies and legislation, and work in tandem with elected legislatures. Other republics elect or choose presidents to act as custodians; their job is to approve or veto legislation, act as a figurehead, and approve political appointments. Other democracies give the power of veto to the reigning monarch or to a governor general, but these vetoes are almost never used as they could provoke a constitutional crisis.

There are four main types of presidential veto. The weakest of the four is the power of review. Countries such as India, France, Portugal, and Italy allow the president to protest a piece of legislation by sending it back to the elected body for review. If the legislature sends the legislation back a second time, the president is unable to reject it.

Countries such as the Republic of Ireland, Poland, and Hungary are able to exercise a constitutional review veto. If the president believes the newly passed legislation is unconstitutional, he or she can send it to a constitutional court for review. If the court passes the legislation, then it must be approved. Poland and Hungary, however, are able to then send it back to parliament for review before being forced to accept it.

Latvia, Iceland, and Austria possess a stronger form of presidential veto. The president of Iceland and Austria are able to reject legislation and call for a direct referendum on it. This plebiscite allows the people to have a direct veto if they so wish. The Latvian president is allowed to call for signatures for a referendum. The legislation is then blocked for two months while he or she tries to gain enough signatures for a public vote, and if the president fails, then the legislation must be passed.

The strongest type of presidential veto is the direct veto. The presidents of America and Singapore, for example, have this style of veto. The Singaporean president can veto appointments to ensure the civil service remains apolitical. He or she is also allowed to block legislation that is deemed to spend money in a reckless fashion. The president of Singapore cannot veto defense and security bills.

Once an act of Congress is passed in America, the president has 10 days to sign it. If the president does not sign, then the bill passes automatically, unless the president returns it with a reason for its rejection. An example of a presidential veto in the US is the 2006 vetoing of a stem-cell research bill by then-President George W. Bush.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 635 vetoes are the most by any president in America, although this works out at only 2 percent of all bills sent to him. Andrew Johnson vetoes the highest percentage of bills at 75 percent, but 50 percent of those were overridden by Congress. Seven presidents, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, never exercised a veto.

The ability to override a presidential veto is a constitutional safeguard protecting people and the legislature from a president's abuse of power. Many European republics override the veto by passing the same bill a second time. In America, if a bill is put to a second vote and is passed by a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate, then the president is powerless to block it. Overrides are more likely to occur when a different political party to the president controls the legislatures.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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