Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

June 19, 2007

George W. Bush: A President Above The Law

by Doug Mataconis

Much has been written about the Bush Administration’s use of so-called Presidential “signing statements”, which are typically comments appended by the White House to Bills submitted by Congress which purport to constitute the Executive Branch’s understand of how it will comply with the law that Congress has just passed.  From a Constitutional perspective, these “signing statements” would appear to be nothing more than mere meaningless political blather but a new Congressional study has shown that the situation is just a little more serious:

President Bush has asserted that he is not necessarily bound by the bills he signs into law, and yesterday a congressional study found multiple examples in which the administration has not complied with the requirements of the new statutes.

Bush has been criticized for his use of “signing statements,” in which he invokes presidential authority to challenge provisions of legislation passed by Congress. The president has challenged a federal ban on torture, a request for data on the administration of the USA Patriot Act and numerous other assertions of congressional power. As recently as December, Bush asserted the authority to open U.S. mail without judicial warrants in a signing statement attached to a postal reform bill.

For the first time, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office — Congress’s investigative arm — tried to ascertain whether the administration has made good on such declarations of presidential power. In appropriations acts for fiscal 2006, GAO investigators found 160 separate provisions that Bush had objected to in signing statements. They then chose 19 to follow.

Of those 19 provisions, six — nearly a third — were not carried out according to law. Ten were executed by the executive branch. On three others, conditions did not require an executive branch response.

Admittedly, many of the examples cited in the article were trivial. However, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a real issue:

[T]he GAO’s findings are legally significant, said Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional lawyer who served on an American Bar Association task force that excoriated the president’s use of signing statements in a report last year. White House officials have dismissed such concerns as overblown, suggesting that the statements were staking out legal positions, not broadcasting the administration’s intentions.

But the GAO report suggests that the dispute over signing statements is not an academic one, Fein said, adding that Congress could use the report to take collective legal action against the White House.

“At least it makes clear the signing statements aren’t solely for staking out a legal position, with the president just saying, ‘I don’t have to do these things, but I will,’ ” Fein said. “In fact they are not doing some of these things. You can’t just vaporize it as an academic question.”

It all comes down to the question of whether the Presidency is an institution onto itself, which would seem to be what the Bush Administration’s position would suggest, or whether the Executive Branch is a co-equal part of the Federal Government, which is what the Founders seemed to have intended.

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  • http://www.kaligulawired.com Kaligula

    And to think, there was a time I actually thought a presidential line item veto was a good idea.

  • http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/ Nick

    This is probably the biggest reason why I won’t support anyone else but Ron Paul for president until he’s no longer running.

    EVERY PRESIDENT since FDR, and arguably those before him, has vastly increased the scope and immunity of the executive branch. They have done it in a way that prevents the checks and balances from coming into play.

    Looking at all of the people who’ve thrown their hat in the ring, both Right and Left, I don’t see too many faces I’d trust to end the growth of–let alone trim back–the power of the president.

  • Bret

    Hmmmm … while I’m certainly no Bush apologist, if a President is going to “translate” a bill to his political advantage isn’t it better that he does so in a signing statement, for all to see? It’s sort of more transparent than just going ahead and executing the law as you see fit without telling anyone. Now certainly one can argue that his interpretation is wrong, but it’s better than not knowing his intepretation at all, right?

  • http://amry.wordpress.com Amry

    @comment by Bret:

    That is really not the point; just because the President puts it in writing on *how* he’s going to twist a bill doesn’t make it “better”; the main thing is, he’s doing what should not be done, and how he’s doing it is irrelevant.

    It’s like saying, “oh, that guy’s gonna kill me, but at least I know he’s going to use his gun, so tell the coroner in advance to look for exit wounds on my corpse”.

  • Free

    When someone says “the Constitution is just a god dam piece of paper.” and then uses these signing statesments(just a piece of paper) to embark his own agenda without regaurd to the Law of the Land, interpetation, the birth of a dictator travails in labor. The real question is “What is the rest of these signing statements for?”. To an uneducated public denied education in law and government(civics) in public schools can only lead to more government intrusion without resistence. These signing statements are just the tip of the ice berg.

  • Free

    By the way Free supports Ron Paul 110% for president of these States United.Let there be light!

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  • Ronald Sansbury

    Any law that is unconstitutional does not have to be obeyed, or inforced as it never was a law in the first place! The “Excutive Order” is not only unconstitutional, its the act of a Dictator!Its about time “The Quiet Majority” took to the streets,and cleaned house of these wonderful elected servants!

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