10 Most Important Presidential Vetoes in Recent History

An American flag waves outside the United States Capitol building as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government September 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution with language to defund U.S. President Barack Obama's national health care plan yesterday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated the U.S. Senate will not consider the legislation as passed by the House. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has received a great deal of critique not only for his executive actions — which some call an overstep of power — but for the bills he’s indicated he will veto should they pass through houses of Congress. One example that’s come up a few times has been the Keystone XL pipeline, and the currently frozen construction Obama has indicated won’t be pushed forward by legislative action. Obama, like other presidents before him, demonstrates that executive action isn’t necessarily the most significant power at his disposal.

Historically, some of the biggest decisions from our presidents, ones that have completely changed the course of history from what it could have been, have been vetoes. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most important presidential vetoes, from the 1970s to recent years.

1. Nixon’s Universal Child Care Veto: 1971

In 1971, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have put forward billions toward building a national day care system. The system would have benefited working parents — especially single parent households — and would have helped struggling American families with an alternative to welfare aid. Given present day difficulty with the child care system and working parents, it would have greatly altered current issues.

At the time though, Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it was a “communal approach to child rearing … against the family-centered approach,” according to So Rich, So Poor by Peter Edelman. At a time when communism was hardly the friendliest concept, the argument appealed to conservatives in his party and around America. “The Raising of America” actually worked on a documentary outlining the bill’s veto and various responses to it, including video comments from opposing Democrats in Congress and how they responded to his decision.

2. Ford’s Freedom of Information Act Veto: 1974

President Gerald R. Ford’s decision to veto the Freedom of Information Act in 1974 was thankfully not the last word on the matter — something that is hardly imaginable in today’s world. But back in 1974, after Congress passed the bill, Ford vetoed it. According to Politico, declassified 2004 documents show that Ford had actually preferred to sign the bill, but was influenced by both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to put national security over government accountability and transparency. Luckily, the House voted to overturn Ford’s veto of the FOIA bill by 371 to 31, and the Senate vote came in at 65 to 27 in favor.

3. Reagan’s Apartheid Sanctions Veto: 1986

Looking back on Apartheid in South Africa, it seems abundantly clear that the right moral, political, ethical, human thing to do was to put sanctions in place against a country with inhumane policy supporting a systematic inequality based on race. His veto of the sanctions was motivated by an upcoming meeting with Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Iceland, saying a vote to put sanction on South Africa would weaken his bargaining ability. “Punitive sanctions, I believe, are not the best course of action,” said Reagan at the time, according to The New York Times. “They hurt the very people they are intended to help.”

Others were quick to criticize his position, including Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), saying according to the NYT, “For this moment, at least, the President has become an irrelevancy to the ideals, heartfelt and spoken, of America.” The Senate voted to override Reagan’s veto, and the Senate overturned it with a vote of 78 to 21.

4. Reagan’s Clean Water Act Veto: 1986

The Clean Water Act was pocket vetoed by Reagan in 1986 largely because of costs, according to a memorandum of disapproval published by the president at the time. The bill would have put aside $20 billion toward water treatment, $174 million of that in California over eight years. Unlike past vetoes, for example the apartheid sanctions mentioned earlier, Congress was not given the opportunity to overturn the president’s choice because it was not directly vetoed, but instead sat for 10 days before expiring.

Unlike other vetoes, this one was more about the details of the bill than the overall idea. Reagan hoped to rework the details and allocation of funds more specifically before agreeing to a bill, placing more of the fiscal strain on the states. “With the backlog of needed treatment plants financed in major part by the federal government since 1972, it now is necessary for the federal government to reduce its expenditures and complete the transition from federal to state and local responsibility,” said Reagan, according to the Los Angeles Times.

5. Bush, Sr.’s Civil Rights Act Veto: 1990

When President George H.W. Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act in 1990, it had very little chance of surviving a re-vote with the necessary two-thirds majority. He argued that the bill went to far toward a quota system, while opponents argued that it was a step backward on vital legislation for equality.

I deeply regret having to take this action. But when our efforts, however well-intentioned, result in quotas, equal opportunity is not advanced but thwarted,” said Bush of his decision, according to the Los Angeles Times. The bill would have overturned multiple Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult to take racial discrimination in workforce hiring to court. It also would have allowed for greater compensation in a suit, a longer time period under which to take employers to court, and a number of other measure to mitigate discriminatory labor practices.

6. Clinton’s Partial-Birth Abortion Veto: 1996

Similar to Bush’s Civil Rights Act, the Partial Birth Abortion bill was vetoed with the knowledge that a two-thirds majority was unlikely to override the president’s decision. President Bill Clinton argued that his choice not to let the bill become law was less to do with the controversy of abortion, and more a reaction to the overly general application of the bill.

The Partial-Birth Abortion bill would have made it illegal for women to have a specific later-term abortion procedure done even in the case where the mother’s life would be in danger and the process done with the advice of a doctor. “This is not about the pro-choice, pro-life debate,” said Clinton, according to CNN. “This is not a bill that should have been injected into that.” The president had previously warned that keeping the provision in the bill would make it impossible to pass.

7. Clinton’s Estate Tax Veto: 1999

In 1999, Clinton chose to pass on a tax cut that would have lasted over a 10-year period for a total of $792 billion. While not entirely against reducing taxes, he argued the cut would have been too extreme, and had proven ineffective in the past. Republicans argued that it would have alleviated stress from the finances of middle class Americans, while Clinton argued it would reduce necessary funds from areas that need it.

The veto did not come as a surprise to Republicans, however it served its purpose of making Clinton appear concerned with finances of the upper class rather than sympathizing with Americans in lower socioeconomic groups. The criticism has followed both Clintons after Hillary Clinton’s commenting that their family had been “dead broke” after leaving the White House.

8. Bush’s Stem Cell Research Veto: 2006

President George W. Bush had been in office for a full five years before he vetoed a bill. He utilized the power for the first time after the House and Senate voted in favor of a bill that would have allowed federal funding for stem-cell research.

While it hardly cut out stem-cell research, which by that point was legal and had a complex social and political history, it did prevent national funding from being put to use there. Bush argued that the bill “crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect,” saying at the time, “boys and girls are not spare parts,” according to CNN.

9. Bush’s Withdrawal from Iraq Veto: 2007

Congress pushed through a bill that would demand the beginning of withdrawal from Iraq in 2007, a bill likely meant more to push the president into committing to an extraction plan, than to force him into that particular extraction plan. However Bush was not prepared to commit to a plan at that point, which he made clear, also bluntly calling the bill a political move with little-to-no expectation of actually having an impact.

I recognize that many Democrats saw this bill as an opportunity to make a political statement about their opposition to the war,” said Bush, according to CNN. “They’ve sent their message, and now it is time to put politics behind us and support our troops with the funds they need.” He also pointed out that announcing a schedule of America’s intended withdrawal would be a huge security flaw and would alert enemies to sensitive plans. For that reason alone, it seems likely the legislation was politically motivated, and a re-vote not even considered.

10. Obama’s Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act Veto: 2010

The Keystone XL pipeline is hardly the first veto situation that has come up for President Obama, and he’s made clear in the past when he intends to veto bills put to Congress. In October of 2010, Obama chose not to sign H.R. 3808, an act that have helped to encourage business transactions over state lines.

The Obama Administration argued the bill was not considered deeply enough and might have “unintended impact … on consumer protections,” such as mortgages. In vetoing the bill, his Administration did emphasize that it was a common goal and left the door open on further work in that area.

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