Presidential Vetoes Rare in Unified Government

By Robert Farley

Posted on June 17, 2021

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When presidents enjoy a unified government, meaning the same party controls the House, Senate and White House, they rarely veto legislation. But Republican Sen. John Barrasso left the misleading impression that it would be some sort of historic anomaly if President Joe Biden doesn’t veto a bill in this session.

Barrasso predicted Biden will “go down in history as a president who has never vetoed a bill,” evidence, he argued, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are “running the show.”

Biden has not vetoed any legislation during his first five months in office, and we won’t speculate about whether or not he might do so in the future. But given that Democrats control both houses of Congress, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Biden to issue few if any vetoes.

Barrasso’s veto comments came during a speech to the Ripon Society, a Republican public policy group, on June 10. Although Barrasso made headlines for his vow to “make Joe Biden a one-half term president,” he then immediately added his prognostication about Biden’s vetoes.

“Joe Biden will never veto a bill,” Barrasso said. “He’ll go down in history as a president who has never vetoed a bill, cause he will sign whatever Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi put on his desk. Period. He’s not gonna get anything he doesn’t agree to to sign. He’s just along for the ride right now, and they’re running the show.”

In fact, recent presidents have rarely issued vetoes when they have a unified government. President Donald Trump didn’t veto any legislation during the 115th Congress in 2017 and 2018 when Republicans controlled the House and Senate. Trump did, however, veto 10 bills in the ensuing two years when there was a divided Congress, with the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate controlled by Republicans.

President Barack Obama vetoed a dozen bills during his eight years in office, but only two during the two years at the beginning of his presidency when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

One of those two vetoes was a stopgap measure to allow the Department of Defense to continue functioning in the event that an appropriations bill did not pass. The appropriations bill did pass, however, rendering the measure moot. Calling the bill “unnecessary legislation,” Obama vetoed the bill, and the veto was not overturned.

In 2010, Obama also vetoed H.R. 3808, the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act, which would have required courts to recognize the notarization of financial documents between states. However, after the bill passed the House and Senate easily via voice vote, concerns arose that it might encourage foreclosure fraud. After Obama’s veto, a large majority in the House voted not to override that veto.

President George W. Bush enjoyed a unified government for most of the first six of his eight-year run as president. He, too, vetoed 12 bills, but all except one of those vetoes occurred during his last two years in office when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. The lone piece of legislation that Bush vetoed during a period of unified government was H.R. 810, a bill that sought to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research, which came to his desk more than five years into his presidency. The House failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto.

President Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills during his eight years in the White House, but none during his first two years in office, the only years when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.

“So what can we take away from this? As you might expect, presidents veto more bills when Congress is controlled by the opposition party and fewer (or none) when it’s controlled by their own party,” Drew DeSilver, a senior writer/editor at the Pew Research Center who has done research on presidential vetoes during times of unified and divided government, told us via email.

Going back to 1973, DeSilver said, there have been seven occasions when the president’s party also controlled both houses of Congress. During those occasions, he noted, “Clinton vetoed no bills during the 103rd, Bush vetoed none during the 108th, and Trump vetoed none during the 115th… Bush vetoed one during the 109th and Obama vetoed two during the 111th.”

“The real outlier … is Jimmy Carter, who clashed constantly with Congress even though Democrats ran the show for his whole term,” DeSilver said.

According to Congress’ historical information, President Carter — who had a unified government for the entirety of his presidency — issued 31 vetoes (13 regular vetoes and 18 pocket vetoes). Still, that’s far fewer than Gerald Ford (66 total vetoes), who held office before Carter, and Reagan (78 total vetoes) who took office after him.

“With the exception of Carter, presidents generally have more leverage over Congress when their party’s in charge, and congressional leaders don’t have much incentive to pass bills they know ‘their’ president is just going to veto,” DeSilver said. “Generally, the incentive is to work out whatever differences there may be behind closed doors and avoid a public spat. Conversely, presidents don’t have much sway over a Congress run by the opposition, and Congress may have much incentive to pass bills and dare a president of the other party to veto them — to sharpen partisan differences, rile up the base, create talking points and campaign-ad fodder.”

As we noted, Biden serves in a narrowly held unified government. Democrats hold a slim majority in the House, 220 to 211. The Senate is divided evenly, with each party holding 50 seats (the Democrats’ number includes two Independents who caucus with the Democrats). Democrats control the Senate because the vice president, Kamala Harris, joins them to cast tie-breaking votes when necessary.

Given the recent record of presidential vetoes, it would not be unusual at all if Biden goes “down in history as a president who has never vetoed a bill,” as Barrasso said, when his party controls Congress.

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