Limits for the pocket veto

For the first hundred years of the United States, Congress was a part-time legislature. By contemporary standards, members dealt with affairs of state relatively quickly, then adjourned for months.

Under those circumstances it made sense for a president to kill legislation he objected to by using a pocket veto - that is, failing to sign it if it was sent to him in the last 10 days of the congressional session. The Constitution doesn't permit Congress to override a pocket veto, unlike the usual situation when the president returns a measure to Capitol Hill with stated objections.

A pocket veto thus allowed the president to prevent lengthy uncertainty as to whether a measure eventually would or would not become law.

Nowadays Congress is in more or less continual session all year long, except for the few months every even year between the fall election campaign and the start of the next congressional session in January. Whereas Congress takes frequent vacations, these are only a few weeks long. No lengthy period thus exists during which legislation would hang fire.

Thus the judicial decision overturning President Reagan's use of a pocket veto last November is sensible. The ruling was made by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case involved a protest by House Democrats of pocket veto on military aid for El Salvador.

The court's ruling will not have a significant effect on Salvadorean aid inasmuch as Congress since has provided that nation with assistance for next year. Whether the decision has a sweeping effect on the pocket veto process will depend, in part, on what reasons the court majority ultimately gives for its decision: It did not make them public immediately. But on the face of it the ruling appears to reinforce similar court decisions last decade that restricted the use of pocket vetoes.

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