The Center for Legislative Archives

Lesson Plans
Congress at Work: The Presidential Veto and Congressional Veto Override Process

Summary:

Students will use a facsimile of a vetoed bill and veto message to understand the veto and veto override process in Congress. Referring to the Constitution, students will match the Constitution's directions to the markings and language of the bill and veto message. Students will then investigate motives for using the veto and override powers, and how the powers reflect the Constitution's checks and balances.

Rationale:

To understand the veto process and why it is used.

Guiding Question:

How does the veto and override process enable the executive and legislative branches to achieve the constitutional principle of "checks and balances" between branches of government?

Materials:

Featured Documents: Attempted Override of President Richard Nixon's Veto of S. 518, an Act to Abolish the Offices of the Director and Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, 1973 (4 pages)

The Constitution of the United States

Worksheet 1

Recommended Grade Levels:

Grades 7 – 12

Courses:

U.S. Government; Civics

Topics included in this lesson:

Veto process, legislative process, legislative branch, separation of powers, and checks and balances

Time Required:

45 minutes

Overview:

While the word "veto" does not appear in the Constitution the power of the President to refuse to sign legislation is clearly outlined in the Constitution:

"Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law."
---U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 7, clause 2

The Framers of the Constitution gave the President the power to veto acts of Congress to prevent the legislative branch from becoming too powerful. This is an illustration of the separation of powers integral to the U.S. Constitution. By separating the powers of government into three branches and creating a system of "checks and balances" between them, the Framers hoped to prevent the misuse or abuse of power. The veto allows the President to "check" the legislature by reviewing acts passed by Congress and blocking measures he finds unconstitutional, unjust, or unwise. Congress's power to override the President's veto forms a "balance" between the branches on the lawmaking power.

Students can use a veto message and vetoed bill to make a direct connection between the Constitution, the legislative and veto process, and the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. A facsimile of a 1973 President Richard Nixon veto and the vetoed bill (S. 518) provides students with the opportunity to walk through the Constitution's veto clauses and gain a greater understanding of the veto process.

The content of this veto message and vetoed bill provide additional evidence of the separation of powers and checks and balances. Referring to the "deeply rooted" "constitutional principle" of separation of powers, President Nixon explains that he is exercising the veto because S. 518 would violate that separation by removing two executive officers from their positions. He maintains that the Presidential power to remove executive officers is "an exclusive power that cannot be infringed upon by the Congress."

Read the Background Information for Teachers to see an overview of the Constitutional clauses which delineate the veto process and a description of the text or markings in the documents which illustrate the process in action.

Learning Activities

1. Decode the Documents

Introduce the featured documents to the students and ask the following questions:

  1. What kind of document is it? (newspaper, official record, photo, drawing, chart, sheet music, poster, broadside, advertisement, personal letter, petition, etc.)
  2. Who created the document? How do you know?
  3. When was the document created? How do you know?
  4. Who is the audience for the document? Was it intended to be private or for the public?
  5. What evidence in the document helps you know why it was written?

2. Define the Terms

Direct students to define "veto" and "veto override." Ask students to locate and read the section of the Constitution which describes the veto process (Article I, Section 7, clause 2).

3. Find the Evidence

Ask students to locate in the document evidence of each of the steps in the veto process as described in Article I, Section 7, clause 2 of the Constitution. Use Worksheet 1 to identify the steps and locate the evidence. Refer to the Background Information for Teachers for assistance identifying all parts of the process.

4. Discuss the Guiding Question

Evaluate the success of the veto and veto override powers as one of the "checks and balances" embedded into the Constitution. What did the Founders hope to accomplish by including these powers? Could that goal have been reached in a more effective manner? If so, how? How could these powers be abused? Have these powers been abused in the past?

5. Lesson Extension

Several attempts have been made to give the President "line-item veto" power, but all have failed (Congress passed a law in 1996 granting line-item veto power to the President, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998). Ask students to research this power, especially why it has been proposed, the arguments for and against the power, and the results of the court decision. How would this power, if used, affect the legislative process as a whole? Construct line-item veto legislation that would be considered constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Related Resources from the National Archives:

Article I, Section 7, clause 2 of the U.S.Constitution

Cancellation of Legislative Items Pursuant to Line Item Veto Act (Public Law 104-130), as published in the Federal Register

President Andrew Jackson's Veto of the Bank Recharter Bill (select pages), 07/10/1832, National Archives Identifier: 306427

Veto message of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the House of Representatives returning H.R. 3687, "An act to provide revenue, and for other purposes" and a House resolution stating that two-thirds of the House agreed to pass the act over the President's veto, 02/22/1944, National Archives Identifier: 306452

President Andrew Johnson's Veto of the Third Reconstruction Act, 07/19/1867, National Archives Identifier: 5678176

Further Resources:

List of all presidential vetoes and congressional veto overrides

Veto Process lesson from CongressLink at the Dirksen Center

President Jackson's Veto Message (full text) Regarding the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832

Presidential Veto and Congressional Procedure; Congressional Research Service Report for Congress

Veto Override Procedure in the House and Senate

Line Item Veto Act Unconstitutional: Clinton vs. City of New York; Congressional Research Service Report for Congress


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