Signing Statements Challenged

There would appear to be a growing consensus, at least among members of the legal community, that President Bush’s use of signing statements—written pronouncements that accompany the signing (or vetoing) of a law—to assert broad executive authority and circumvent portions of the law with which he does not agree are deeply troubling, if not unconstitutional. In today’s Washington Post, Michael Abramowitz reports on the findings of an American Bar Association task force that was recently convened to study the matter:

Bush’s Tactic of Refusing Laws Is Probed

A panel of legal scholars and lawyers assembled by the American Bar Association is sharply criticizing the use of “signing statements� by President Bush that assert his right to ignore or not enforce laws passed by Congress.

In a report to be issued today, the ABA task force said that Bush has lodged more challenges to provisions of laws than all previous presidents combined.

The panel members described the development as a serious threat to the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, and they urged Congress to pass legislation permitting court review of such statements.

“The president is indicating that he will not enforce either part or the entirety of congressional bills,� said ABA president Michael S. Greco, a Massachusetts attorney. “We will be close to a constitutional crisis if this issue, the president’s use of signing statements, is left unchecked.� [full text]

One week ago, writing in The American Conservative, James Bovard also expressed concern about Bush’s excessive and overreaching use of signing statements:

Power of the Pen

For generations, Republican politicians have spoken reverently of the rule of law. But since 2001, this hoary doctrine has been redefined to mean little more than the enforcement of the secret thoughts of the commander in chief.

George W. Bush has added more than 750 “signing statements� to new laws since he took office. Earlier presidents occasionally appended such comments to new statutes, but Bush is the first to use signing statements routinely to nullify key provisions of new laws. He perennially announces that he will not be bound by limits on his power and that he will scorn obligations to disclose how federal power is being used.

While Bush supporters speak glowingly of originalist interpretations of the Constitution, Bush’s signing statements have far more in common with George III than with George Washington. The Constitution specifies that Congress shall “make all laws� and that presidents must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.� But Bush—his ego swollen by swarms of groveling intellectuals—has embraced theories that convince him that the president alone may decree what shall be the law. [full text]

A week previously, Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, offered his own words of caution:

The Threat of Bush’s Signing Statements

Presidents have used signing statements since early in the republic. But the character, intent and volume have changed since George W. Bush became president.

Since 2001, President Bush has objected on constitutional grounds to more than 500 provisions in more than 100 pieces of legislation–a number approaching the 575 constitutional statements issued by all of his predecessors combined.

These bills cover not only the so-called war on terror but also affirmative action programs, requirements of statistical compilations by executive agencies, and establishing basic qualifications for executive appointees.

The president has not simply objected to an overall law–he has said flatly that he will not enforce, or will use his own interpretation, for specific provisions of the laws….

This use of presidential signing statements seems to us clearly to violate the Constitution. Article I of our founding document gives Congress, not the president, the power to make the laws. Article II requires the president to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. The Constitution also gives the president the authority to veto laws that he finds objectionable. And if he does, the Constitution states that Congress may either “override” the veto, in which case it becomes law, or it may sustain it, and the bill will fail.

By signing a particular bill into law and then issuing a signing statement that declares that he will not give effect to it, or to a provision of it, the president effectively circumvents these constitutional requirements, as well as displaces the courts as the final expositor of the Constitution.

The broad use of signing statements is not an aberration for the Bush administration. Indeed, this White House has advocated and pursued the most executive-centered conception of American constitutional democracy in contemporary history. Its reading of the inherent powers of the presidency, especially on matters of national security, has gone largely unchallenged by a supine Congress and a deferential judiciary. [full text]

I cannot help but wonder if this nation is in the midst of a largely ignored constitutional crisis. We take our freedoms for granted at our own peril.

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5 thoughts on “Signing Statements Challenged

  1. David realizes that when our Constitution becomes so much like a “support out troops” magnet it’s importance erodes because the meaning is often lost.

    Hence, when our executive branch elects to ignore the oath of office, as was anticipated by the founders, such actions individually or collectively may constitute impeachable offenses.

    President he may be, but he does work for “we the people” … does the billboard and the conviction to display it begin to make sense now?

  2. The Norman Orenstein reference to GeorgeIII was very telling. It is my opinion that the Bush candicacy, 2000 election dust-up and the entire Bush administration is monarchial. The president believes he’s a king is the only explanation for his behavior and policies. Espousing democracy for the Middle East while fighting the Congress and the Constitution every inch of the way. Spying on US citizens,torturing prisoners,renditons,secret offshore prisons all without oversight from the other branches of government is what kings and/or dictators do. Most aggregious is the Whitehouse outing of Valerie Plame,CIA covert operative,for political purposes during the War on Terror …traitorous!!!

  3. The Norman Orenstein reference to GeorgeIII was very telling. It is my opinion that the Bush candicacy, 2000 election dust-up and the entire Bush administration is monarchial. The president believes he’s a king is the only explanation for his behavior and policies. Espousing democracy for the Middle East while fighting the Congress and the Constitution every inch of the way. Spying on US citizens,torturing prisoners,renditons,secret offshore prisons all without oversight from the other branches of government is what kings and/or dictators do. Most aggregious is the Whitehouse outing of Valerie Plame,CIA covert operative,for political purposes during the War on Terror …traitorous!!!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Lauretta and Carl. BTW, Carl has a new ad out, produced by Ava Lowery, the 15-year-old who produced a video of injured and killed Iraq children set to the voice of a young person singing “Jesus loves me, this I know.” You can see a preview of the ad here:

    http://www.carlsheeler.com/video.htm

    I’d be interested in people’s responses to the ad.

  5. Actually, I guess I shouldn’t be thread-splitting in this way. I have made a separate post about the Ava Lowery ad for people to comment on there.

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