Read the Fine Print
Over 212 years, 42 presidents issued “signing statements” objecting to a grand total of 600 provisions of new laws. George W. Bush has done that more than 800 times in just over five and a half years in office.
Most presidents used signing statements to get legal objections on the record for judges to consider in any court challenge. For Mr. Bush, they are far more: part of a strategy to expand presidential powers at the expense of Congress and the courts. His signing statements have become notices to Congress that he simply does not intend to follow the law, especially any attempt to hold him accountable for his actions.
Some of Mr. Bush’s signing statements have become notorious, like the one in which he said he didn’t feel bound by the new law against torturing prisoners. Others were more obscure, like the one in which he said he would not follow a law forbidding the White House to censor or withhold scientific data requested by Congress.
But all serve the “unitary executive theory” cherished by some of Mr. Bush’s most extreme advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal staff. This theory says that the president — and not Congress or the courts — has the sole power to decide how to carry out his duties. According to a study by a bipartisan panel of the American Bar Association, Mr. Bush objected to 500 provisions of new laws just in his first term — the majority of them because they conflicted with the unitary executive theory. The A.B.A. said that theory was specifically mentioned 82 times.
The Bush administration often says the president is just trying to stop Congress from interfering with his ability to keep the nation safe, and that other presidents also included constitutional objections in their signing statements. That’s just smoke.
For one thing, under this president, all laws are screened by Mr. Cheney’s staff for violations of the unitary executive theory. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton had the Justice Department report constitutional concerns about new laws to the White House. Mr. Bush often does cite national security as an excuse for ignoring an act of Congress — but that is almost always because lawmakers are trying to rein him in on issues like the treatment of prisoners, and the withholding of information from Congress.
The A.B.A. called Mr. Bush’s use of presidential signing statements “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers” and recommended that Congress enact legislation clarifying the issue.
We agree on both points, even though we fear that if Congress passes a bill, Mr. Bush will simply issue a new signing statement saying he also does not intend to follow it.