On August 15, 2014, Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for allegedly misusing the veto power granted to him by the state constitution. And on August 15, 1787, it was that very power — the power of the executive to negate acts of the legislature — that occupied the delegates’ time at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
By this point in that historic summer, the 55 or so representatives of the 12 states (Rhode Island did not participate) had hammered out most of the powers of the legislature. There were, in fact, only two questions remaining: Should the Senate be allowed to submit budget bills, and to what extent should a bill approved by both houses be subject to veto by the president?
On June 4, 1787, the Committee of the Whole (composed of all delegates acting as a committee rather than as delegates representing the states) approved the grant of veto power to the president, as well as empowering the legislature to override the executive “negative” with a two-thirds vote of both bodies. The provision finally adopted by the convention on July 21 read:
“Resolved, that the national executive shall have a right to negative any legislative act which shall not be afterwards passed, unless by two third parts of each branch of the national legislature.”
The plain language of the provision reveals that the intention of the convention was to require a two-thirds vote of the full body of each branch, rather than the assent of two-thirds of the total members present between the two houses.
Although that seems a simple enough reading of the veto override requirement, difficulty in interpretation arose when the Committee on Style presented their report on August 6. In that draft version of the Constitution, rather than copying the language as agreed to by the members of the convention, they copied a similar provision in the Massachusetts state constitution. This article read:
“But if after such reconsideration, two thirds of that House shall, notwithstanding the objections of the President, agree to pass it, it shall, together with his objections be sent to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of the other House also, it shall become a law.”
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Photo of Oval Office: AP Images