Specter Proposes Bill to Challenge President
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The tug of war between Congress and the White House escalated yesterday. The issue was presidential signing statements. Those are documents that the president tacks on to legislation identifying parts of a bill that he may ignore. Now Congress has a bill that would try to put a check on those statements. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Some members of Congress see signing statements as the White House thumbing its nose at Capitol Hill. For example, Congress passed a provision over White House objections that outlawed torture of detainees. The president signed the bill into law, and he attached a statement reserving the right not to obey the law. Bruce Fein was member of an American Bar Association committee that studied signing statements.
Mr. BRUCE FEIN: That's an example in my judgment of the president saying my negotiation with you is a charade. You enact laws, but I'll decide whether I enforce them or what portions I wish to enforce. And that certainly is treating Congress, I think, like a stepchild.
SHAPIRO: Perhaps more than any other Republican, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has bristled at the president's use of signing statements. He called a Judiciary Committee hearing to address them, and yesterday he introduced legislation aimed at curbing them.
Sen. ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The essential part of the legislation is that it would grant Congress standing to contest presidential signing statements in court.
SHAPIRO: Under Specter's law, either the House or Senate could vote to sue the White House over a signing statement. Then a judge would rule on the statement's legality. But Fein, who worked on the legislation, points out a problem with that scenario.
Mr. FEIN: If the Republicans are in control of both chambers, why, you might ask, would a majority vote to sue a President of their own party?
SHAPIRO: Answer: they probably wouldn't. Ed Whalen President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He supports the president's use of signing statements and he sees a much bigger problem with this bill.
Mr. ED WHALEN (President, Ethics and Public Policy Center): A court could no more strike down a signing statement than they could strike down a passage of legislative history. The whole concept is incoherent.
SHAPIRO: He says a signing statement just expresses the president's intention. It isn't binding. It doesn't affect anything the president does.
Mr. WHALEN: It almost seems as though the critics of signing statements would prefer that were no signing statements. But the president could do silently everything that he says openly in the signing statement. So it's puzzling misplaced attack.
SHAPIRO: Earlier this week, the American Bar Association released its studies of the president's use of signing statements. The ABA said President Bush has used this tool more than any of predecessors, and the group said it harms the separation of powers. But it's not clear that Congress is upset enough about this to pass Specter's bill. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist supports the president's use of signing statements. Specter says that okay.
Sen. SPECTER: He and I have a very sharp difference of opinion. I don't expect all 100 senators to agree with this bill, but I know that a fair number do.
SHAPIRO: Regardless of whether the bill passes, its introduction is the latest example of Congress pushing back against the White House. The House and Senate have been holding hearings all month into subjects that executive branch first tried to handle on it own, from domestic spying to war crimes trials for Guantanamo detainees. Signing statements are just the latest addition to this list.
Members of the Executive Branch have insisted all along that Congress has an important role to play. Now Congress is getting more specific about exactly what it thinks that role is.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.