October 23rd, 2020


In the 9th inning, Congress ends Obama's perfect veto game

Amber Phillips

By Amber Phillips The Washington Post

Published Sept. 29, 2016

In the 9th inning, Congress ends Obama's perfect veto game

President Barack Obama was just months away from accomplishing something very few presidents have ever accomplished - the presidential equivalent of a perfect game. And now Congress is scoring a run in the ninth inning.

On Wednesday, the Senate overwhelmingly voted 97 to 1 to override his veto on a bill allowing 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia for not doing enough to prevent the terrorist attack. The House is expected to vote Thursday to override his veto, marking the first time during Obama's tenure that Congress has overridden one of his vetoes.

It also means Obama will have just missed going down in history as the first president in nearly a half-century to avoid any veto overrides.

The last time an administration made it eight years without having Congress override one veto was the Kennedy/Johnson administration, almost 50 years ago. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were able to avoid veto battles with Congress in large part because Congress was controlled by their own party while they were in the White House.

Obama has had to deal with the opposite: At least one chamber of Congress has been controlled by Republicans for six out of the eight years of his presidency. Even though Congress has been historically unproductive during the past few years of Obama's tenure, Obama has vetoed as much legislation as the last president, George W. Bush. Both have issued 12 vetoes. Congress overrode four of Bush's.

That's a perfect recipe for a veto override showdown - and yet one didn't happen until the last four months of his presidency.

"If Obama had made it [without a veto override], it would have been arguably the most impressive act along the lines of any president in American history," said Brooklyn College professor Robert David Johnson, a.k.a a presidential history book in human form.

Johnson said most veto overrides happen toward the end of a president's tenure, when his political power is weakest.

That seems to be what's happening here. Throughout Obama's presidency, the one group he could count on in Congress to back him up has been House Democrats. But no longer - at least, not on this politically sensitive issue.

Enough House Democrats are expected to join with Republicans Thursday to override Obama's veto. That's because priorities have changed as Obama's tenure winds down: House Democrats need to worry about their own reelection more than earning favor with a president who's going to be out of office in a few months.

Brookings Institution congressional expert Molly Reynolds said voting against a bill that 9/11 families want is politically risky territory.

"You could imagine attack ads," Johnson said: "Congressperson X stood with the Saudi terrorists."

Because it looks as if no presidential veto records will be tied or broken during Obama's tenure, let's end with some of history's veto override records, courtesy of Johnson:

There have been only 110 veto overrides in U.S. history.

The president with the most veto overrides is Andrew Johnson, at 15.

Among post-World War II presidents, the record for most veto overrides belongs to President Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, each with 12.

Modern day vetoes are actually relatively rare. Truman vetoed 250 bills - President George W. Bush and Obama vetoed 12 each.

Up until the Civil War, presidents rarely vetoed legislation. The veto was considered to be used only when the president thought a bill Congress passed was unconstitutional.

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