George W. Bush: A President Above The Lawby 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.Â 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.