There’s been some attention of late on the aggressive use of “signing statements” by the executive branch. As the Boston Globe reported:
Bush has claimed that his executive powers allow him to bypass more than 1,100 laws enacted since he took office. But administration officials insist that Bush’s signing statements merely question the laws’ constitutionality, and do not necessarily mean that the president also authorized his subordinates to violate them.
But Democrats said they wanted to know whether Bush has followed through on his claims that the Constitution gives him the power to exempt executive branch officials from laws that Congress has passed to regulate the government, including affirmative action hiring requirements, a ban on all forms of torture, and oversight provisions in the Patriot Act.
The American Bar Association last year sounded an alarm about the escalating use of signing statements. ABA president Karen Mathis testified that it is “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers” for a president to sign a bill and then instruct the executive branch that parts are unconstitutional. Presidents must either veto a bill and give Congress a chance to override their judgments, or they must sign it and obey all of it as written, she said.
Presidential signing statements are nothing new. From the administrations of Monroe through Carter, the executive branch issued a total of 75 signing statements.
In a remarkable increase in the use of signing statements, President Bush issued at least 435 signing statements in his first term alone. And, as we see in the above article, he’s now used it to ignore or challenge well-over one thousand laws! Previous presidents would now and then tack on a comment to new statutes, but Bush is the first to use signing statements regularly to invalidate essential parts of new laws. It is important, therefore, to understand the implications as well as the constitutionality of such actions.
Previously, when presidents would sign a bill that Congress had passed, they would add a â€œsigning statementâ€ if they felt the bill might be interpreted in such a way so as to encroach on the powers of the executive branch. Bush has done this as well, but in addition, he has used these statements not only to protect presidential powers, but to nullify acts of Congress.
As laid out in the Constitution, the President has the ability to nullify an act of Congress, and that is by use of the veto.
But, rather than follow the law and veto bills which he feels are repugnant to the Constitution, President Bush is using these signing statements as a way to nullify them, in practice, as they â€œrelate to the executive branch.â€
In reality, signing statements used in this matter are nothing more than a line-item veto â€“ a presidential decree â€“ the use of which is quite contrary to the Constitution and the separation of powers.
Back in 1988, the Supreme Court already laid down the law in regards to line-item vetoes. In Clinton v. New York, the court held that such a veto was unconstitutional, and that the president could only approve or veto an entire law. The executive branch, therefore, does not have the power to veto, or approve, individual provisions of a law passed by Congress.
The reason that the Court ruled the line-item veto as unconstitutional is because they violate the Presentment Clause of the Constitution. This clause lays out the process quite clearly:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.
Following the Presentment Clause, if a president feels that part of a bill is unconstitutional, the entire bill should be vetoed. A veto is the only way a President can prevent a bill from becoming law. As the Tenth Amendment makes so clear, if a power is not given to the government in the Constitution, then it doesnâ€™t exist. Period. Nowhere in the Constitution is the President given the power to ignore provisions of a law. Nowhere in the Constitution is the phrase â€œsigning statementâ€ or anything like it even mentioned!
Therefore, in direct violation to his oath of office, George Bush is using signing statements to ignore or negate laws passed by Congress. His absolute duty, if he feels these bills are illegal, would be to veto them. But, as we all know, this just doesnâ€™t happen in America today.
George Bush, like so many presidents before him, is raising himself above the law. Following in the footsteps of so many of his predecessors, he is showing utter contempt for the Constitution and the separation of powers that exist to preserve our liberty.