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What Is a Pocket Veto?

United States Capitol
A pocket veto is an indirect veto of a legislative bill.

What Is a Veto?

To be able to understand what a pocket veto is, it is important to first obtain a full comprehension of what a regular ‘veto’ is, and how it may affect the law-making process in the United States. 

Essentially, a veto should be considered a proper procedure that may be used by the president to prevent the enactment of a joint resolution or bill into law.

United States Congress.

When a bill has been passed by the United States Congress, the president has exactly ten days to sign it – excluding Sundays. 

This period of time allows for the president to come to a highly informed and conclusive decision, while also examining any necessary revisions. 

Presidential veto

Occasionally, circumstances or issues will arise, causing the president to refuse the approval or signing of a specific bill, which in turn, begins the veto process.

Veto sign
Vetoed legislation is returned to Congress.

When this occurs, the president will then have the bill returned to the appropriate Chamber or House – the one from which it originated. 

Generally speaking, the return of this legislation will come with an attached reasoning for the particular objection(s). This is often viewed as and considered to be an opportunity for editing and review for the House.

Overriding the president’s veto

It is important to bear in mind that this decision made by the president is subject to the potential of being overridden. 

The override process can only occur by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. When this does happen, the bill will become law, regardless of the president’s objection or disapproval.

What Is a Pocket Veto?

With this general understanding of what a veto is and the process that occurs during it, it is easier to understand what a ‘pocket veto’ is. 

The word "Legislation" highlighted in green
The president is given a 10-day period to review legislation.

This type of veto occurs under very specific circumstances. There are instances when Congress adjourns during the ten-day period that the president is given to review legislation, which is when a pocket veto may occur.

When Congress has adjourned, it is impossible for the president to return a proposed bill. This does not, however, take away the president’s ability to elect not to sign the bill. 

The president is still able to come to that decision, and because Congress has chosen to adjourn, the bill is killed – without a chance of an override.

After this has happened, and a bill is dead, the only option for Congress is to reintroduce the proposed legislation as an entirely new bill. 

This means starting all over again, having the necessity of the bill passing through both the House and the Senate, etc.

Congress draped in closed sign
Pocket vetoes occur when Congress is not in session.

Therefore, it is easiest to remember that a pocket veto occurs when the president decides not to sign the bill during the adjournment of Congress. This is often viewed as being a controversial, but intelligently used legislative maneuver – particularly in the case(s) of highly disputed bills. 

This has much to do with the fact that this type of veto is not subject to the typical (and commonly used) congressional override process.

The History & Use of Pocket Vetoes

The first documented use of a pocket veto in United States history took place in the year 1812. This occurred when the president at the time, James Madison, disputed and disagreed with the passing of a proposed bill. 

James Madison engraving
James Madison is recorded as the first United States president to use the pocket veto.

Since its first introduction to the American legislative system, the pocket veto has seen an abundance of usage by many different presidents.

In the past, there have been presidents who have chosen to exercise the use of this legislative tactic, and there have been certain presidents who have perhaps, overused it. 

President Grover Cleveland

For example, when first in office, Grover Cleveland elected to use the pocket veto 110 times. President Cleveland then chose to exercise the same presidential power 128 times during his second term in office.

President Grover Cleveland
President Grover Cleveland used the pocket veto an astonishing 110 times during his first term in office.

Presidents Truman & Eisenhower

Similar to Grover Cleveland, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower also chose to exercise this veto – with 70, and 108 documented uses. 

President Roosevelt

However, Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the record, having utilized a total of two hundred and sixty-three pocket vetoes during his time in the oval office.

It is also worth mentioning that Franklin D. Roosevelt also holds the record for the most regular vetoes of bills – sitting at a total 372. This brings Franklin Roosevelt’s total vetoes (regular and pocket) to a mass total of 635. 

Of all of these vetoes, Congress was only able to override nine of them – showcasing the intellectual and decision-making abilities of the past president.

Modern Use

Because of the controversial nature that revolves around the use of the pocket veto, it has not been as commonly used in recent decades. 

In fact, George W. Bush, Barack H. Obama, and Donald J. Trump did not used this power. 

President Donald J. Trump
President Trump used his veto power on 10 occasions.

More so now than ever before, it is crucial to consider first how the actions and decisions made by the president may be viewed by the public and the media.

As the process of moving a bill through the Senate, the House, and finally getting it to the president is very tedious, Congress does not want to allow for the opportunity of a pocket veto to occur. 

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