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The Federalist Papers: No. 73

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 73 is published. You may remember that essay 70 outlined several ingredients needed for an “energetic executive.” This paper tackles the third of these ingredients: “adequate provision for its support.” Alexander Hamilton writes as Publius in this particular paper.

Publius’s discussion of this third ingredient is quick. He notes the constitutional provision that presidential compensation cannot be increased or decreased during the President’s time in office. Thus, the President has adequate provision for his own support, without any discretionary intervention by Congress. Publius notes the importance of this provision: Congressmen cannot render the President “obsequious to their will,” either by holding back funds or by “tempt[ing] him by largesses, to surrender at discretion his judgment to their inclinations.”

Next, Publius turns to his fourth and final ingredient, necessary for an energetic executive: The President must have “competent powers.” Publius will discuss these powers over the course of the next few papers. For now, he addresses the President’s right to veto legislation.

The veto serves many important purposes.

First, Publius reminds readers of his prior papers dealing with separation of powers and checks and balances. Each branch of government needs to have “constitutional arms for its own defense.” Without such arms, the President could be “gradually be stripped of his authorities by successive resolutions, or annihilated by a single vote.” In short, he must have a “constitutional and effectual power of self-defense.” The veto is one tool that he may use for this purpose.

But the veto has other benefits as well. It “furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws.” Publius acknowledges that good laws may sometimes be prevented, but he seems less concerned about that. “[E]very institution calculated to restrain the excess of law-making,” he observes, “and to keep things in the same state in which they happen to be at any given period, as much more likely to do good than harm; because it is favorable to greater stability in the system of legislation.”

In short, the “injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good laws, will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing a number of bad ones.”

In any event, Publius believes that the veto will be used only “with great caution.” As evidence, he notes that the British monarch rarely uses the similar power that is given to him. “If a magistrate so powerful and so well fortified as a British monarch, would have scruples about the exercise of the power under consideration, how much greater caution may be reasonably expected in a President of the United States, clothed for the short period of four years with the executive authority of a government wholly and purely republican?” Indeed, Publius may be more worried about a President who is too timid with his use of the power, as opposed to one who is too rash.

On the other hand, Publius notes that the President has only a “qualified negative.” The legislature can override his veto. This should make him more bold to return bills for reconsideration. He knows that his decision, alone, will not defeat the law.