Presidential Signing Statements and the Constitution

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In many cases, statements released by President Bush as he places his signature on legislation essentially say he reserves the right to ignore legislation if he decides it conflicts with his constitutional powers. An American Bar Association task force calls these statements "contrary to the rule of law."


This week 14 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush asking him to reconsider his position on a piece of legislation. The bill was designed to put pressure on the government of Sudan over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

The president signed it into law, but the senators say they are deeply troubled by the president's signing statement which accompanied his signature on the bill, and they asked the president for his assurance that he does intend to enforce the law.

News analyst Daniel Schorr notes a larger trend at issue here.

DANIEL SCHORR: You hear a lot of our judges trying to legislate from the bench. You hear less about a president trying to legislate from the White House. I'm not talking about the veto, nor about the White House-directed Senate filibuster - sometimes vexing, but not unconstitutional. I'm talking about something you won't find in the Constitution - the presidential signing statement.

Indeed, an American Bar Association task force has labeled President Bush's use of signing statements as contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers.

The idea of making a statement while signing a bill goes back to the time of Presidents Jackson and Monroe. But announcing that the president reserves the right to ignore parts of a bill has become a specialty of the Bush White House.

In December, Congress unanimously passed the resolution allowing state and local governments to cut their investment ties with companies doing business with Sudan. That as punishment for genocide in Darfur. Mr. Bush signed the bill and stated he was reserving the right to override the law if it conflicted with his exercise of foreign policy.

The most consequential veto by singing statement was the president's action on the $688 billion Defense Authorization Act. The Democrats in Congress had written in a provision banning the establishment of permanent bases or permanently stationed troops in Iraq. Mr. Bush said in his signing statement that this provision could inhibit his authority as commander in chief.

Mr. Bush's use of the signing statements as a form of veto has brought pain to the constitutional law community and to the Democrats.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both said they will use signing statements if elected. Senator John McCain said he would not. As for President Bush, he has already issued scores of signing statements that contradict the measure he is signing. And there seems to be no organized campaign to stop him

This is Daniel Schorr.

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