Congress mustered big majorities for the Keystone XL, which you might think would mean that pipeline would soon be under construction to carry Canadian crude oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
But you would be forgetting the presidential veto, which President Obama signed on Feb. 24 with little or no fanfare.
Wednesday, the Senate put an end to years of legislative effort by upholding the Obama veto. The Senate voted 62 to 37 in favor of the override, but it wasn’t enough.
If a president vetoes a bill from Congress, it takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to override it and enact the bill in question. Two-thirds majorities are scarce in any Congress in any era, and in these partisan times they are almost unknown.
How often are vetoes overridden? Not often. Looking only at the regular vetoes such as Obama’s veto on Keystone, the override rate since the beginning of the republic is just 7 percent. If you add in the somewhat sneakier “pocket veto,” the percentage of overrides falls to 4 percent. (A pocket veto happens when the signing period of 10 days does not expire until Congress is no longer in session.)
In fact, the first nine presidents of the U.S. never had a veto overridden. And since then there have been 11 more who could make the same boast.
But most presidents have known the sting of the override. The first to suffer the indignity was John Tyler in 1845 (it had to do with buying ships, but never mind). That was 170 years ago this week, and it was a low point in the Tyler presidency, which began when William Henry Harrison died just a month after taking the oath.
The presidents with the worst override records served long ago in the years before and just after the Civil War. Franklin Pierce in the 1850s cast nine vetoes and had five overridden. Andrew Johnson, the luckless successor to Abraham Lincoln, cast 29 vetoes and had just over half overridden, including 71 percent of his regular vetoes.
Grover Cleveland had the single most veto-heavy term, using the power 414 times and having just two overridden. Most of these were individual pension bills having to do with Civil War veterans and they led to the passage of a more general pension reform bill that Cleveland also vetoed, contributing to his defeat in 1888.
Having served a full three terms and part of a fourth, Franklin D. Roosevelt would be expected to have vetoed a lot of bills, and he did. His disagreements with his Democratic colleagues who dominated Congress were numerous enough for him to use the veto 635 times, but those partisan majorities were large enough that he was overridden only nine times.
In the past half-century or so, Republican vetoes have been overridden more often than Democratic ones. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan had roughly one-fourth of all their vetoes overridden, while Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter cast a combined 82 vetoes and had only two overridden (both Carter’s).
The two presidents named George Bush were a study in contrast in their veto records, as in other matters. The first President Bush used the veto 44 times and suffered only one override. His son spent most of his two terms with a Republican Congress, but when Democrats took over in his last two years he vetoed 12 bills and was overridden four times.
President Obama vetoed two bills in his first term, one a spending bill that was subsequently amended more to his liking and passed. The other was a regulation on banks regarding foreclosure rules that Obama wanted to tinker with. Both vetoes were sustained in the House, so no votes were taken in the Senate.
On rare occasions, major bills have been enacted over the president’s veto. Two occurred in the embattled presidency of Harry Truman. In 1947, freshly elected Republican majorities passed the Taft-Hartley bill restraining unions. Truman vetoed the bill, calling it anti-labor. The override was overwhelming in both chambers and the bill remains a mainstay of labor law today.
Truman was re-elected, however, and in 1950 he opposed a highly popular anti-communist bill, known as the McCarran Internal Security Act. The bill was driven by a national fear of rising communism, both in the Soviet Union and in the “Red China” of Mao Zedong. Truman saw the bill as reactionary, a witch hunt for “reds” and “Fifth Column Communists” that “made a mockery of the Bill of Rights.” But Congress easily overrode him by big margins.
More generally, however, Truman made generous and successful use of the veto. In nearly eight years in office, he cast 250 vetoes and had only a dozen overridden. Only 7 percent of his regular vetoes were overridden, right on the historical average for all presidents before and since.