Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Signing statements thwart Congressional intent

Rather than veto bills he finds unconstitutional, Bush often uses signing statements to set aside statutes

Introduction

In elementary school, American children learn that the U.S. Constitution dictates a precise and cumbersome process through which a bill becomes law. When a bill is passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the president may either let it become law or veto it. The Executive Office of the President under George W. Bush, however, often tried to create a third option: changing the meaning of the legislation via a “signing statement,” attached while signing the bill into law. Bush is not the first president to employ signing statements, but no chief executive has used them this aggressively; a Boston Globe report in 2006 determined that Bush had issued such statements “to more than one of every ten bills he has signed,” claiming “the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.” According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, 78 percent of Bush’s signing statements raised constitutional objections. A bipartisan task force of the American Bar Association warned that, to protect the constitutional separation of powers, “the president and those who succeed him [should] cease the practice of using presidential signing statements to state his intention to disregard or decline to enforce a law or to interpret it in a manner inconsistent with the will of Congress.” The task force recommended that presidents instead simply veto legislation they deem unconstitutional. “Our legislation doesn’t amount to anything if the president can say, ‘My constitutional authority supersedes the statute,’” Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told Reuters. “And I think we’ve got to lay down the gauntlet and challenge him on it.” An investigation by the Government Accountability Office of 2006 appropriations legislation determined that six of 19 sample provisions addressed by Bush in his signing statements were ultimately not executed as written by Congress. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but, in 2006, a spokesman defended the signing statements, arguing: “There’s this notion that the president is committing acts of civil disobedience, and he’s not. It’s important for the president at least to express reservations about the constitutionality of certain provisions.”

Follow-up:
Congressional committees have held hearings and some legislation has been offered to restrict the use of signing statements, but none have made it to the floor in either house.

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