Monthly Archives: September 2006

Presidential Signing Statements Unconstitutional

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The Constitution gives the president exactly one method for preventing a law passed by Congress from taking effect: the veto. President Bush has chosen largely to ignore his veto power. Instead, he often issues a “signing statement” when he signs a bill, proclaiming which parts of the bill he will not obey, along with his objections to those parts. In effect, he presumes that he has the power of a line item veto.

A few years ago, Congress had given President Clinton a line-item veto. Anyone who glances at Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution can see that there is no constitutional sanction for this new presidential power. The Supreme Court rightly struck down the law. That should have laid the issue to rest, but Bush, following his usual pattern of assuming powers never granted his office, has been signing bills with abandon while openly declaring that he will obey only those provisions that suit his purposes.

There is nothing wrong with publishing a statement upon signing a bill if the statement merely explains the president’s understanding of the intent of Congress in passing the bill.
Many presidents, starting with James Monroe, have done so. Only the few who are known for a tendency to usurp power from Congress – for example, Wilson, the Roosevelts, Reagan and Carter – made it a practice to claim the power to ignore a provision of the law with which they disagreed.

Bush has surpassed even the power-monger Franklin Roosevelt in his use of signing statements to defy the power of Congress.According to a report by the American Bar Association (http://www.abanet.org/op/signingstatements/), “From the inception of the Republic until 2000, Presidents produced signing statements containing fewer than 600 challenges to the bills they signed. According to the most recent update, in his 1 1/2 terms Bush has produced more than 800.” That’s a third more than all previous presidents combined.

The April 30 Boston Globe listed several examples of signing statements issued by Bush. According to The Globe, on August 8, 2005 the president signed a bill mandating that “The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.”
In his signing statement, Bush gutted the bill by stating that the administration would regulate what information DOE and NRC employees may provide to Congress.

A bill signed on August 5, 2004, declared that “The military cannot add to its files any illegally gathered intelligence, including information obtained about Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.”
The president turned this bill on its head by stating that “Only the president, as commander in chief, can tell the military whether or not it can use any specific piece of intelligence.”

Probably the most controversial example is the bill signed on December 30, 2005, outlawing the use of torture against prisoners. Bush flatly defied Congress and the Constitution by claiming the power to waive this provision “if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks.”

The Constitution grants the power to legislate exclusively to Congress. When a president reshapes a bill by declaring that he will obey only selected parts, he is treading on Congress’ power to legislate. Many bills are the results of compromise among competing factions of Congress. If a president can in effect veto provisions of the bill, no compromise is safe. Eventually, congressmen will stop negotiating, in the knowledge that no matter what deal they make the president will do whatever he wants. If a president determines that a bill sent to his desk contains unconstitutional or otherwise objectionable provisions, his duty is to veto the entire bill. He may not pick and choose which parts of the bill to obey. Congress is derelict in its duty if it fails to slap down this or any president who usurps its exclusive power to legislate.