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Matthews: Veto threats

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Matthews. 1989. Veto threats: Rhetoric in a bargaining game. Quarterly Journal of Economics.


Presidents say all kinds of rhetoric to try to influence Congressional appropriations bills. (1) Does the rhetoric influence the bills? (2) Is the rhetoric only a bluff? (3) If so, will his bluff be called, and will he renege on his promises to veto?

Place in the Literature

Criticizes the two-stage proposal-veto game (e.g. Kiewiet and McCubbins 1986) in which the Congress proposes a bill just close enough to its ideal point that the president will be indifferent to the status quo. (1) This model predicts no vetoes, yet vetoes occur regularly. (2) This model assumes that rhetoric has no meaning, despite the common belief that presidential veto threats have some credibility.

The Model


  1. Only the president knows what bills he would prefer to the status quo (uncertainty). The president is of one of four types:
    • Accomodator: Wants more reform than Congress, therefore lets Congress move policy to its ideal point.
    • Moderate: Wants somewhat less reform than Congress
    • Extreme: Wants far less reform than Congress
    • Recalcitrant: Wants reform in the opposite direction as Congress wants.
  2. Thus, Congress does not know which bills will be vetoed.
  3. Thus, the president's rhetoric is a signal to Congress.

NOTE that each type doesn't require that policy move to its ideal point. It requires that Congress move policy only far enough that the new policy is closer to the ideal point than the status quo. But if the Moderate type could convince Congress that he were Extreme, than Congress would propose a policy just good enough that an Extreme president wouldn't sign it--and this would probably closer to the Moderate president's ideal point than what Congress would propose if it knew the president were Moderate.


  1. Rhetoric matters
  2. Bills will sometimes be vetoed

Sequence of Play

  1. The "chooser" (president), who alone knows his type, uses rhetoric to send a message. This rhetoric is "cheap talk", not a costly signal.
  2. The "proposer" responds with a proposal.
  3. The choose accepts or vetoes the proposal.
  4. Outcomes: Acceptance results in the proposal, veto results in status quo.


  1. Unidimensionality. [Why? When funding multiple agencies, there can be multiple dimensions. But see Cameron, p 87.]

(Perfect) Equilibria

  1. "Size one equilibria." Rhetoric doesn't matter. The proposer always makes a compromise proposal. Might be accepted or vetoed.
  2. "Size two equilibria." Chooser sends either an 'accomodating' or 'threat' message.
    • Proposer responds to 'accomodating' message by proposing his ideal outcome, which is 'surely' accepted by the types of choosers willing to signal accomodation.
    • Proposer responds to 'threat' message by proposing a compromise. Proposer might accept or reject this compromise.

Criticisms and Comments

Doesn't see vetoes as costly enough. Moreover, the game (in real life) wouldn't end with a veto--a veto would simply lead to the next stage of the game.

Research on similar subjects


Matthews, Steven (author)American PoliticsAppropriationsPresidency (US)VetoBargainingCongress (U.S.)Legislative-Executive Bargaining

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