January 10, 2015

Horse 1817 - The 114th Congress: The Congress of Veto

The 114th United States Congress which was voted for on November 4 last year, began its first sitting session on Tuesday.
Among the first bills that the US House of Representatives passed was a bill approving the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline:

The US House has passed a bill approving the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill soon, which President Barack Obama has said he will veto.
Earlier in the day, a court in Nebraska dismissed a case that would have stalled construction of the pipeline. The project has been one of the most contentious issues between Mr Obama and Republicans who now lead Congress.
- BBC News, 9th Jan 2015

What I find most interesting about this, is that President Obama has said that he intends to veto the bill. I don't really care about the politics of the bill to be honest or the shouting match that is the US Congress because that just seems to me to be like Rangers versus Celtic - hooray, boo, hooray, boo - at least Rangers and Celtic fans go home after 90 minutes.
The veto, is an interesting feature of US politics and is a direct result of a partisan method of electing the head of state.

Mechanically, the way legislation passes through the US Congress is identical to that of Westminster parliaments. A bill gets read and debated three times in the lower house before passing to the upper house where it is also read and debated three times. If it passes both houses, it is passed to the head of state or their representative (in the US, the President does the same job as the Queen or Governor-General) and once it is signed off on, it is law.
You'd think that this would cause all sorts of problems but there is a safeguard which allows a two-thirds supermajority to override the president's veto.

I took a look back through the lists of numbers of the House and Senate over the past 100 years¹ and then compared that with a list of Presidents of The United States² and found that of the 54 congresses since 1909 and the presidency of William Taft, only 16 of 54 congresses have been such that one of the houses had a majority different to that of the president. 38 of 54 congresses were openly "friendly" to the president.
This is hardly surprising though. Due to the election cycle of the United States, one half of the Senate and all the Representatives are elected at the same time as the president. During the mid-terms, one half of the Senate and all the Representatives are elected. It means that for the majority of first term presidents, they start with a friendly congress.
It follow that with a friendly congress, there shouldn't need to be a veto, right? Wrong!

In that 100 year time frame, there were 1608 times when the president exercised a veto on legislation. 1256 of those or 78.1% of the time, the president exercised a veto on legislation that came from a "friendly" congress. It was only 352 times or 21.8% of the time, the president exercised a veto on legislation that came from a "hostile" congress.

I think that the 112th and 113th Congress illustrate perfectly why this should be the case.
The 80th Congress was nicknamed the "Do Nothing" Congress by Harry Truman when it only passed 906 bills.
The gridlock on capital hill was so bad recently that the 112th Congress passed 283 bills and the 113th Congress passed 296 bills. Add those together and you still only get 579; which combined is still well short of the "Do Nothing" Congress.
President Obama has only vetoed 2 bills in three congresses. I think it stands to reason that if bills aren't even escaping the congress, they never even get the chance to be vetoed.

This is why I think that the 114th Congress will be different to the other three in Obama's presidency. For the first time, he doesn't just have a friendly or deadlocked congress but one that's openly hostile. Over the long run, only 21.8% of vetoes have come from openly hostile congresses but I suspect that the next two years might be as fractured as Nixon's term as presidency. The congress will try everything and the 114th Congress just might be the one for record vetos... at least before the presidential primaries begin in 2016.


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