In his first two years in office, President Obama didn't have to worry too much about vetoing legislation -- his party had sizable majorities in Congress, and Democrats were eager to send him bills he was likely to sign. In the four years that followed, in the wake of Republican gains, Congress' productivity fell off a cliff, passing fewer bills than at any point in modern American history -- and as a consequence, Obama still didn't have reason to dust off the veto pen.
Indeed, after six years in office, Obama's total number of vetoes is just two
. That's the lowest of any two-term president since Abraham Lincoln
But the paltry total probably won't last much longer. In his State of the Union address last night, Obama mentioned six times
his willingness to veto various measures under congressional consideration. Just hours before the speech, the White House put some of these threats in writing
Though he's spending the day preparing to deliver his 2015 State of the Union address, Mr. Obama hasn't gone entirely off the grid. He issued two veto threats Tuesday, warning Republicans he would block two bills pertaining to abortion and natural gas pipeline permitting. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would ban abortions after 20 weeks unless they were necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.... The second bill, the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve or deny applications for natural gas pipeline projects within 12 months.
Some of these bills are almost certain to reach the president's desk, so Obama's veto pen will come out of the box for the first time in over four years. But before it does, let's pause to note that there's nothing especially wrong with veto threats on a conceptual level.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Thursday he was disappointed that the White House threatened to veto his legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, arguing the president's move was "not the way a democracy works." The West Virginia lawmaker said he was upset Obama did not reserve judgment on the bill until it went through the committee and amendment process in an interview with Fox News's "America's Newsroom."
Actually, in our democracy, this is exactly how the process works. In fact, veto threats make quite a bit of sense -- since legislation needs the support of the House, the Senate, and the president in order to become law, it's actually quite beneficial to the process if lawmakers know in advance which proposals a president is inclined to reject. On an institutional level, these threats are arguably a White House's way of doing Congress a favor -- don't invest too much time and effort in this bill, a president sometimes tells lawmakers, because it won't get my support. Members are better off working on something else.
In practice, congressional Republicans apparently don't appreciate the guidance. Maybe they think they'll override the vetoes; maybe they're going through the motions to make a partisan point without any real regard for whether their bills will become law or not.
That said, if GOP lawmakers think Obama's bluffing, and that he really won't veto these proposals, I suspect they're going to be disappointed.