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Presidential Legislative Powers

The Buck Stops Here

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The White House on a spring day
Bob Stefko/The Image Bank/Getty Images
The President of the United States is commonly referred to as the most powerful person in the free world, but his legislative powers are strictly defined by the Constitution and by a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government.

Approving Legislation
Although it is the responsibility of Congress to introduce and pass legislation, it is the president's duty to either approve those bills or reject them. Once the president signs a bill into law, it goes immediately into effect unless there is another effective date noted. Only the Supreme Court may remove the law, by declaring it unconstitutional.

The president may also issue a signing statement at the time he signs a bill. The presidential signing statement may simply explain the purpose of the bill, instruct the responsible executive branch agencies on how the law should be administered or express the president's opinion of the law's constitutionality.

Vetoing Legislation
The president may also veto a specific bill, which Congress can override with a two-thirds majority of the number of members present in both the Senate and the House when the override vote is taken. Whichever chamber of Congress originated the bill may also rewrite the legislation after the veto and send it back to the president for approval.

The president has a third option, which is to do nothing. In this case, two things can happen. If Congress is in session at any point within a period of 10 business days after the president receives the bill, it automatically becomes law. If Congress does not convene within 10 days, the bill dies and Congress cannot override it. This is known as a pocket veto.

No Congressional Approval Needed
There are two ways that presidents can enact initiatives without congressional approval. Presidents may issue a proclamation, often ceremonial in nature, such as naming a day in honor of someone or something that has contributed to American society. A president may also issue an executive order, which has the full effect of law and is directed to federal agencies that are charged with carrying out the order. Examples include Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order for the internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces and Dwight Eisenhower's order to integrate the nation's schools.

Congress cannot directly vote to override an executive order in the way they can a veto. Instead, Congress must pass a bill canceling or changing the order in a manner they see fit. The president will typically veto that bill, and then Congress can try to override the veto of that second bill. The Supreme Court can also declare an executive order to be unconstitutional. Congressional cancellation of an order is extremely rare.

The President's Legislative Agenda
Once a year, the president is required to provide the full Congress with a State of the Union address. At this time, the president often lays out his legislative agenda for the next year, outlining his legislative priorities for both Congress and the nation at large.

In order to help get his legislative agenda passed by Congress, the president will often ask a specific lawmaker to sponsor bills and lobby other members for passage. Members of the president's staff, such as the vice president, his chief of staff and other liaisons with Capitol Hill also will lobby representatives to try to garner support for the legislation.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.

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