Grover Cleveland’s mighty veto pen

Grover Cleveland
Wikimedia Commons
Grover Cleveland

Everyone’s wondering how the Republican takeover of Congress will affect legislation in Washington, and one particularly intriguing question involves President Obama’s veto pen — will he use it a lot now that both the House and the Senate are in GOP hands?

If he does, it will be a big change from his first six years in office. Shortly after the election, the Washington Post ran a chart that compared presidents by the number of vetoes they issued. Obama has only struck down two bills, a sign perhaps of how little legislation has even reached his desk. The top vetoer of all time was Franklin Roosevelt, who exercised that power 645 times. That’s not especially surprising given the intensity of New Deal legislation and how long FDR served in office. What is surprising, though, is who comes in a close second: none other than Grover Cleveland, whose chief claim to fame is being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office.

Like Obama, he was a Democratic president facing a Republican Congress. Unlike Obama, he vetoed no fewer than 414 bills in his first term alone (1885-1889), though many of those were not exactly legislation as we think of it today.


What was going on? Toward the end of the 19th century, the pension system for Civil War veterans had spiraled out of control — Congress kept loosening the eligibility guidelines in order to gain veterans’ votes. By the start of Cleveland’s second term, the pension system accounted for 37 percent of the federal budget. The system still required veterans to provide proof of disability before a review board; in the rare cases they were denied, aspiring pensioners often had their congressman submit “private pension bills,” legislation drafted specifically to award a pension to a single person.

Cleveland was known as a corruption buster, and private pension bills were a comically brazen form of vote buying. So as they flooded Cleveland’s desk, he reviewed them all and struck down the least deserving cases. (This was not a small job – one historian counts 240 in a single day.) Whatever criticisms we have of Congress today, at least legislators aren’t quite so explicitly handing out government money to their constituents, and it’s understood the president has better things to do with his time. Though Obama, if he finds himself twiddling his thumbs during his last two years in office, might end up envying Cleveland: at least he got to do something.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at