Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pocket Veto In the House (Well, the White House)

President Obama today announced that he would not sign HR 3808, the bill which passed Congres last week touching on mortgage and foreclosure issues. The current text of the bill removes a company's liability in certain situations when they mishandle mortgage papers. It would excuse bank slip-ups in the notarization processes. The recent revelations that large banks systematically made these mistakes which summarily led to foreclosure proceedings made the White House rethink the bill, which otherwise has many important consumer protections.

This brings me back to one of the more frustrating days I ever had in high school, to a U.S. history class in which my teacher tried again and again to explain "the pocket veto." As I'm sure he wish he had done that day, let's start with the text of Article I Section 7, which describes how a bill becomes a law:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.
Pretty standard stuff so far. Majorities of both houses of congress pass a bill, which goes to the president, who can either sign it into law or veto it. We'll skip over the veto override process text (which requires two thirds of both houses) and skip to the relevant clause:
If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.
A President does not have to sign a bill for it to become law. He may hold on to it for ten days, and if the Congress is in session, the bill becomes law. Presidents may do this to avoid putting their signature on a bill that they disapprove of, but are afraid that they will get overridden.

The live constitutional debate about the pocket veto is the meaning of 'Adjournment', with executives claiming recently that the pocket veto may be an option while Congress is technically in session, but is away on vacation. The temptation to use a pocket veto when a normal one would do is that the Constitution does not specifically lay out how such a mid-session adjournment pocket veto could be overridden. But that's a discussion for another time, as this pocket veto occurred well within all meanings of Adjournment: the 111th Congress will not meet again.

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