What is a Pocket Veto?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A pocket veto is an indirect veto by an executive official such as a governor or president. It may be used as a tactic when an executive does not want to authorize a bill, but also does not want to attract controversy with a direct veto and wants to ensure that the bill will not become law. When a bill is subjected to a pocket veto, it must be reintroduced and taken through the entire legislative process if the legislature decides that it wants to try again.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

When the legislature has finished drafting a bill and votes to approve it, it is sent to the executive for a signature. Executives generally have 10 days to respond with either a signature approving the bill and signing it into law, or a veto disapproving the bill. The legislature may have the option of voting to override the veto and pass the bill anyway, or accepting the veto and allowing the bill to die. If the executive does not respond within 10 days, the bill usually becomes law automatically.

The exception to this is when the legislature adjourns. If the legislature adjourns during the 10 day waiting period, there is often no official mechanism for the executive to return the bill. The executive can choose to sign it and make it a law, or to do nothing and exercise a pocket veto. If the legislature adjourns and the executive does not sign the bill within 10 days, the bill does not become law. The pocket veto cannot be overridden with a vote.

The term "pocket veto" dates to the 1830s, and is a reference to the idea that the executive puts the bill into a pocket rather than signing it. Numerous executives, especially presidents, have taken advantage of the pocket veto. It occasionally attracts media attention and some scholars have criticized the practice, arguing that there is some debate about what constitutes an "adjournment" and thus whether or not the pocket veto is really valid.

There are several ways a legislature can avoid this particular maneuver. One is to avoid sending bills for signature in the immediate advance of an adjournment. Since the legislative schedule is usually planned out for several weeks, legislators can simply hold bills until after a break, or submit them more than 10 days before a planned break. Another option, one practiced by the US Congress on several occasions, is to adjourn, but leave several legislators in Congress who are authorized to accept the bill if it is returned with a veto.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@rugbygirl - I guess one reason might be if the president was lukewarm about the bill. You know, didn't want to veto or maybe didn't have the political capital to veto. (If a presidential veto gets overridden, he looks like kind of a loser!)

Or maybe the president supports the general idea, but finds it flawed. One case I've read of where this happened was when Congress passed a law outlawing flag burning during the George H.W. Bush administration. President Bush supported banning the burning of the flag, but he thought a constitutional amendment would be the better course.

He was right, of course. The Supreme Court struck down the law as being unconstitutional (which it was - violates the first amendment) and as far as I know, the idea of a constitutional amendment has never gained much traction.


I get why a president would want to use the pocket veto. Sometimes you just want to fly under the radar, for one thing, and if there might be enough votes to override the veto, of course s/he would want to wait and take their chances with a new Congress.

But what's the advantage to the president of letting a bill become law without signing it? Does this ever happen? The article mentions that if ten days pass and Congress is still in session, the bill becomes law even if the president has not signed it.

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