The Veto Game

One of the facts of political life for Governor William Weld during the 1995-96 session of the legislature has been that, even if he had every fellow Republican in the State House backing him up, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate have the numbers to override his veto at will.

Weld objected strenuously to a bill earlier this year that increased the cigarette tax to expand children’s health care programs, for example. But even with Democratic defections, the House and Senate easily overrode the governor’s veto. It didn’t help Weld’s cause that 11 House Republicans and 6 Senate Republicans sided with the Democrats.

With the odds stacked so heavily against them, it may be purely practical for Republicans to get on board as popular bills move through the legislature. And yet, an observer watching the final frenetic weeks of the legislative session this summer may well have wondered whether a Republican governor might not occassionally pine for just a little more party loyalty.

When the governor speaks, does the GOP listen?
Take a batch of goose-eggs presented to the governor on the last day of the session. Weld had taken exception to a section of a large transportation bill that, in the governor’s view, “unduly restricts the MBTA’s management of commuter rail service.” He wielded his veto pen on the offending section. “Notwithstanding the objections of His Excellency the Governor,” as they say in legislative-land, the House overrode the veto by a vote of 153-0. It went over to the Senate. The vote was 37-0. Later in the day, the state budget came back from the governor for reconsideration. He had vetoed a section that called for the state to make payments for child care for welfare recipients attempting to get education or training. The House overrode the child care veto 153-0. In the Senate it was 37-1, with Minority Leader Sen. Brian Lees of East Longmeadow the governor’s one lonely backer.

“Quite frankly, it was not one that was high on our priority list,” explains the governor’s legislative director Steve Dodge of the daycare veto.

Not all override votes have been so lopsided. And yet, a look at the entire stack of governor’s vetoes from January through August of this year shows that on average Weld could count on only 15 votes out of the 35-member Republican delegation in the House. The average in the Senate was about 5 votes out of the 10-member GOP delegation. Only once did Weld get the support of all present Republican House members: 33 R’s joined 81 D’s in sustaining a veto of a measure that would have created special elections for certain county offices when vacancies occur.

Of the 14 override votes taken in the House this year, 12 were successful; those 12 went on to succeed in the Senate. Of course, the majority of Weld’s vetoes did not come back up for a vote. Technically speaking, Weld handed down 144 vetoes, counting individual sections and line items of bills that he rejected. (He vetoed 93 sections and items in the 1997 budget bill alone.) By that measure his won-lost record was good–132-12.

As it has played out, the governor and Democratic leaders frequently were in accord this year: Weld has been pleased to sign much of what the Legislature has passed, and much of what the governor has vetoed has been left vetoed.

Dodge says the governor has no problem with Republicans voting their consciences on individual bills. “I don’t think we have anything to complain about with our Republicans in the House and Senate,” says Dodge. “They can be counted on when we need them to fight the good fight.”

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
But, as Dodge concedes, if Republicans want to strengthen the governor’s veto in Massachusetts, they’ve got a long way to go. To block the two-thirds majority required to override a veto, they’d need at least 54 members in the 160-member House and 14 members in the 40-member Senate.

And then they’d have to vote together.