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A Veto Override Vote Is Not Always an Overriding Priority

The House Democratic leadership’s decision to let the president’s Oct. 3 veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill marinate for two weeks before holding a vote to override reminds us that two can play the veto politics game. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yes, the president has the bully pulpit to defend his veto. But Congress can choose from a range of options in response.

The veto override delay on SCHIP was designed to pressure wavering Republicans to support the popular program for children of the working poor.

The override effort in the House fell 13 votes short of the two-thirds needed (with no GOP pickups). Nevertheless, the hiatus bought valuable time for Democrats to mount a successful media offensive and public education campaign. Opinion polls showed public support for the SCHIP bill running at 75 percent to 80 percent at the time of the override vote.

The ability of the Democrats to delay the override vote may come as a surprise to those who think the Constitution mandates an immediate vote in Congress upon receipt of a presidential veto message.

Article I, Section 7, Clause 2 provides that once the president returns a bill to Congress with his objections, the chamber in which it originated “shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.”

Well into the 1970s it was the traditional practice, after the president’s veto message had been read, for the chair to put the question: “Will the House, on reconsideration, pass the bill, the objections of the president to the contrary notwithstanding?”

However, instead of putting that question on the SCHIP veto to the House on Oct. 3, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recognized Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to offer “a privileged motion at the desk” to “postpone further consideration of the veto message and the bill … until Oct. 18, 2007.” The motion was debated, then adopted along party lines.

How does the House reconcile the seeming contradiction between the constitutional mandate for immediate reconsideration of a vetoed bill and the modern practice of deferring or referring it?

That question was raised by House Republicans on Aug. 3, 1988, when President Ronald Reagan vetoed a defense authorization bill that significantly reduced funding for such weapons systems as his Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars.” (A House Armed Services Committee press release even boasted that the bill “took the stars out of Star Wars.”)

When Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) did not put the question of reconsideration and instead began to recognize Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-Wash.) to offer a motion to refer the bill and veto message to committee, Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) and the GOP’s designated floor objector, Rep. Bob Walker (Pa.), formed a tag-team to pepper the Speaker with parliamentary inquiries.

Michel: “Isn’t it customary for the chair to state the question immediately after the reading of the message?”

Wright: “That is not necessarily customary.”

Michel: “Is the Speaker saying that the constitutional mandate to proceed to reconsider a bill may be prevented by secondary motions and the House could actually avoid a direct vote and debate on overriding a veto?”

Wright: “On many occasions, that’s exactly what has occurred.”

Walker: “Is all that the Speaker has just told the House true, even if there is no intention of ever proceeding to the reconsideration of the veto?”

Wright: “There is no precedent available to the Chair with respect to an interpretation of intention in regard to a matter of this kind.”

Finally, Michel offered a resolution raising a “question of the privileges of the House,” which asserted that a motion to refer a vetoed bill to committee “interferes with the constitutional prerogative of the House to proceed to reconsider” the bill, and directed the Speaker to “first state the question of reconsideration before recognizing any Member to offer a motion to refer the vetoed bill.”

Speaker Wright ruled that the resolution was not a valid question of House privilege because such resolutions cannot change the House rules, “including directions to the Speaker as to whom he must give priority recognition.”

Wright went on to explain that House rules allow the Speaker to recognize a Member to offer a privileged motion to lay a vetoed bill on the table, postpone consideration or refer it to committee.

Walker’s motion to appeal the ruling of the chair (to reverse the ruling) was tabled on a party-line vote, as was his subsequent motion to postpone reconsideration to the following day. Foley’s motion to refer the vetoed bill to the Armed Services Committee was then adopted.

The matter did not end there.

As the Speaker explained in his ruling, if a vetoed measure is referred or tabled, it is in order as a privileged matter to move at any time, either to discharge it from committee or to take it from the table.

Walker and other House Republicans took turns on 14 subsequent days to offer motions to discharge the vetoed bill from committee, only to be beaten back each time by motions to table.

Finally, on Sept. 28, a compromise was hammered out with the administration and signed into law a few days later.

It’s clear from the debate surrounding the 1988 veto that it was deeply immersed in election year politics, with Republicans hammering “Dukakis Democrats” for being weak on defense and Democrats charging Republicans with short-changing domestic needs.

Any similarities between the 1988 defense veto and the SCHIP veto are purely coincidental — except, perhaps, the ultimate need to compromise on issues of mutual political importance. You can safely bet that no sick kids will be thrown into the streets tomorrow any more than the U.S. was likely to unilaterally disarm two decades ago.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.