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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Veto Power of the U.S. President

On September 12, 1787, in the U.S. Constitutional Convention, Gerry claimed that the "primary object of the revisionary check on the President is not to protect the general interest, but to defend his own department" (Madison, Notes, p. 628). Gerry was stressing the value of maintaining the separation of power that was to exist between the three branches of the U.S. (General, or federal) Government. I believe he was inordinately fixated on his point--missing the presiding function of the U.S. President. Also on September 12, Madison averred that the "object of the revisionary power is twofold. 1. to defend the Executive Rights 2. to prevent popular or factious injustice" (Madison, Notes, p. 629). In addition to be an advocate of the separation of power within the U.S. Government, Madison was concerned that a large faction in the majority might oppress a minority faction and he viewed the expanded republic of the union as a means to minimize such tyranny. He too was slighting the presiding role of the president. 

At the end of the convention, George Washington, who had been presiding over it as one controversial point after another were debated, noted the problems inherent in both presiding and advocating on particular issues. Madison reports that when "the PRESIDENT rose, for the purpose of putting the question [of the Constitution], he [Washington] said that although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the . . . smallness of the proportion of Representatives [in the U. S. House] had been considered by many members of the Convention an insufficient security for the rights &; interests of the people. . . . he thought this of so much consequence that it would give [him] much satisfaction to see it adopted. No opposition was made . . . it was agreed to unanimously" (Madison, Notes, p. 655). Washington believed that as he was presiding over the Convention it was necessary for him to remain silent on all of the particular points being debated throughout the Convention; even on the last day he hesitated in expressing his desire that there be no less than 30,000 people per House Rep. rather than 40,000 as the Convention had decided. 

The silence of a presider places him or her in good position to weigh in on a point "of so much consequence."  In other words, a presider literally sits before, rather than participates, so as to be able to protect the whole from dangers from points of large consequence.  Weighing in on every partisan point, such as most U.S. Presidents have done, not only keeps them from seeing the forest through the particular trees, but also detracts from their credibility with which they could push through the few matters of such consequence that the system would succumb otherwise. 

It follows that the veto should be used not to give the President a share in every piece of legislation, but to enable him or her to stop bills that would otherwise compromise the system as a whole.  In the U.S. Constitution as it was drafted by the Convention, the U.S. House was the only democratically elected body or branch in the U.S. Government.  Neither the U.S. Senators nor the U.S. President were elected by the people. The Senate represented (and protected) the state governments, and special electors were chosen by the state legislatures to select the U.S. President.  The quality of representative democracy in the U.S. House was therefore vital to the Government having a balance within which democracy was a part. Compromise democracy in the House and the U.S. Government might become an aristocracy or monarchy.  These terms were used by many of the convention's delegates. 

George Washington understood the nature of presiding, which can be gleamed from Madison's report of what the PRESIDENT said on the last day of the convention. It is a pity that his example has been lost on so many U.S. Presidents.

Source: James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York: Norton, 1987).