WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators and scholars denounced President
Bush Tuesday for using scores of so-called "signing statements" to reserve
the right to ignore or reinterpret provisions of legislation that he has
signed into law.
Bush's statements have challenged a congressional ban on torture, a request
for data on the administration of the USA Patriot Act, even a legislative
demand for suggestions on the digital mapping of coastal resources.
Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing marked the latest effort by
committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and panel Democrats to try to
reclaim authority they say the president has usurped as he has expanded the
power of the executive branch.
Other presidents have used signing statements to clarify their
interpretation of laws, but no president has used such statements instead of
using the veto authority spelled out in the Constitution, according to
Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., who is serving on a
newly formed American Bar Association task force examining Bush's signing
statements. Bush has never vetoed a bill.
"There is a sense that the president has taken the signing statements far
beyond the customary purviews," Specter told the administration's
representative, Michelle Boardman, the deputy assistant attorney general in
the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. "There's a real issue here
as to whether the president may, in effect, cherry-pick the provisions he
likes and exclude the ones he doesn't like."
Democrats were more blunt, blasting Bush's signing statements — estimated to
number more than 750 on 110 laws, more than all the statements issued by all
other presidents combined.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the
committee's ranking Democrat, calling the practice "a grave threat to our
constitutional system of checks and balances."
Specter has been more aggressive than any other Republican in challenging
Bush's expanding authority, pushing him to reshape his warrantless-wiretapping
efforts to comply with existing law, threatening to summon
telecommunications executives who have given the government access to
customer phone records, and challenging the White House's legal arguments
for indefinite detentions at the U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But Tuesday, Judiciary Committee members appealed to their fellow lawmakers,
who Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said have been "complicit as so many of our
precious rights under the Constitution have been ceded away."
Boardman countered that presidents since James Monroe have issued statements
of interpretation to accompany laws, and that every president since Dwight
Eisenhower has issued statements reserving the right not to execute sections
of laws that may contradict the Constitution.
By her accounting, Bush has issued such statements on 110 laws, compared
with 80 from Bill Clinton, as many as 105 from Ronald Reagan and 147 from
George H.W. Bush in a single term. But the younger Bush issued multiple
statements on many of those laws for a total of 750.
"Even if there has been a modest increase, let me just suggest that it be
viewed in light of current events and Congress' response to those events,"
she said. "The significance of legislation affecting national security has
increased markedly since Sept. 11."
It has been the national-security related statements that have caused the
most controversy. Last year, after months of difficult negotiations, Bush
withdrew a veto threat and signed a defense-policy bill that included a
provision by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., explicitly banning cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment of prisoners at U.S. detention centers. But Bush's
signing statement reserved the right to waive the torture ban if he
concluded that some harsh interrogation techniques could advance the war on
This year, after Congress reached a hard-fought agreement to extend the USA
Patriot Act, expanding the power of federal law enforcement, the president
questioned a provision calling for the administration to furnish Congress
with detailed audits on the issuance of secret business-record searches and
so-called National Security Letters.
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