Presidents Not Signing a Bill

Over the weekend I was wondering about one way in which a bill no longer becomes a law.  Article I, Section 7, gives the President three options about what to do when Congress passes something.  He can sign it within ten days.  He can veto it within ten days.  Or he can do nothing.  If he does nothing right before a congressional recess or an adjournment, the law can be pocket vetoed.  That happens from time to time.

What presidents do not do anymore is refuse to sign a bill that they don’t like and allow it to become law.  This used to happen in the 19th century.  At some point, though, this practice died out.  Presidents used to refuse to sign as a kind of protest.  Today they sign and issue a signing statement listing all sorts of objections to the legislation.  Setting aside whether you think that is a valid practice, I’m curious why the “no signing” custom became extinct.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Kent says:

    If they don’t sign, and the bill turns our to be a good one (at least the public perception is a good one) an opponent in the next election can point to the fact that the President did not support the successful law and use it against him. If he signs it and objects, it’s harder for the future opponent to use it against the President in an election. Just a thought, I have exactly zero empirical evidence.

  2. Josh Chafetz says:

    I don’t remember if it engages with the historical question of why the practice died out, but a former student of mine wrote his Note on what he termed “default enactment”:

    Ross A. Wilson, Note, A Third Way: The Presidential Nonsigning Statement, 96 Cornell L. Rev. 1503 (2011).

  3. Joe says:

    If anything, with so many laws, it seems more economical not to worry about relatively trivial legislation. Autopens do save time here. As to elections, what about second terms? They have no third term for it it be a threat for there.

    The cited article lists a few recent cases where Presidents didn’t sign a bill, letting it become law by default, because they had some constitutional concern but did not wish to veto. I don’t see an “engagement” of the historical question.

    Did it happen a lot as a “protest” in the 19th Century? Was it related to the “Whig” view of the veto only warranted in special cases?

  4. Ross Goodman says:

    In the end, it’s all about politics. If you refused to sign a bill but the bill then turns out to be generally good or great, the president will carry the burden of criticism for his “incompetency.” Doing nothing however is different. It is a silent veto where nothing happens because the president decides to do nothing about the bill. Silence means less criticism.