Veto Threats as a Policy Tool: When to Threaten? (Articles)

By Deen, Rebecca E.; Arnold, Laura W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Veto Threats as a Policy Tool: When to Threaten? (Articles)


Deen, Rebecca E., Arnold, Laura W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Presidents have many tools in the policy-making process. One of the most powerful of these is vetoing legislation. Studies of the veto in the American context can be grouped into examinations of its historical development (Spitzer 1994; Watson 1987), explorations of the presidential decision-making process in vetoing legislation (Wayne, Cole, and Hyde 1979; Wayne 1978; Neustadt 1954), and the investigations of the conditions under which a veto is likely to occur and to be successful (Cameron, Lapinski, and Rienmann 2000; Cameron 2000; Spitzer 1994; Hoff 1993; Woolley 1991; Ringlestein 1985; Rhode and Simon 1985; Copeland 1983; Lee 1975; Polsby 1964; Corwin and Koenig 1956).

Although it is an important arrow in the president's quiver to affect the substance of policy, the veto is often viewed as a negative force. If the legislative process is a series of sequential events, one tends to think of the veto as the president's act of last resort. However, this is an incomplete understanding of the power of the president in the legislative process. Rarely do presidential vetoes come as a surprise to members of Congress. Rather, these vetoes usually have been signaled well in advance with the hope that knowledge of an impending veto will shape the legislation as it moves through the process.

Although presidents can veto legislation at will, the use of the veto is costly. It can be perceived as a sign of weakness, an inability to lead Congress. In addition, a president runs the risk of having his veto overridden, which further exacerbates his weakened bargaining position with legislators. As a result, these early signals of presidential opposition are quite important. All signals are not created alike, however. Some are statements of the administration's preferred position. Some signals are more explicit threats to veto legislation. Some of these veto threats are themselves quite specific, for example, "The President will veto this bill if it contains--"

We know that these threats are a part of the bargaining process between the president and Congress that goes on with any given piece of legislation (Hinckley 1985; Wayne 1978). It is a part of both popular and academic wisdom that these threats are used frequently and effectively by presidents in trying to move the congressional majority toward the president's preferred position. This article explores the conditions under which presidents are likely to use veto threats. We posit a model of the president's use of veto threats that includes presidential resources and environmental, bargaining, and policy-related factors. We test our ideas using the Ford administration as our source of information.

What We Know about Veto Threats

The research on veto threats has developed a great deal in the past several years. It is common wisdom that threats are an important part of the bargaining process (Hinckley 1985; Wayne 1978); however, the early work on veto threats was limited both in the operationalization of threat and in the understanding of the environment of veto threats (Spitzer 1994). The factors that affect whether the president makes the decision to veto may play a role in his decision to threaten a veto. From previous research, we know that decisions to veto are affected both by political resources and by environmental constraints. Public opinion, congressional coalitions, issue area, and importance of legislation all have an impact on his choice of whether to veto (Woolley 1991; Rhode and Simon 1985; Copeland 1983; Lee 1975).

When the president can threaten to veto legislation without actually having to exercise the veto itself, he saves resources (e.g., he avoids perpetuation of a weakened image, potentially angering congressional allies, etc.). In addition, by threatening, he provides Congress with information about his intentions. He hopes that this information will change future behavior (i.e., that Congress will send him legislation he would sign rather than a bill he would veto). …

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