House Studies Impact of Bush 'Signing Statements'

Presidents issue statements as they sign bills into law, explaining how they interpret what they're signing. Critics say the Bush administration has used such statements to advance executive power. On Wednesday, a House panel discussed the claims.

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A House of Representatives panel has been hearing conflicting testimony on the issue of presidential signing statements. This is a question of presidential power versus the power of Congress. Presidents dating back to James Monroe have issued statements since they've signed bills to explain how they interpret new laws. Under President Bush those statements have proliferated as never before, And the question is what they mean.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports on what people are saying about them now.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The title of yesterday's hearing left no doubt as to where House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers came down on the matter. Presidential Signing Statements Under the Bush Administration: A Threat to Checks and Balances and the Rule of Law?

In his opening statement, Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, gave his answer.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): All too often the administration has engaged in these practices under a veil of secrecy. This is a constitutional issue that no self-respecting federal legislature should tolerate.

NAYLOR: The senior Republican on the panel, Lamar Smith of Texas, saw the issue much differently.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): Presidential signing statements are a non-issue. Critics have launched a massive fishing expedition but they have caught only the reddest of red herrings. So this hearing only consists of a critique of a sideshow that the course themselves have barely glanced at.

NAYLOR: In fact, the two sides couldn't even agree on the number of signing statements. The Justice Department says President Bush has issued 126 as of the end of last week, compared to 80 by President Clinton and 114 issued by the first President Bush. But critics say this administration has singled out some 800 provisions in those laws.

Conyers asked Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Elwood about a statement attached to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in which the president said he could withhold information from Congress if he decided that information would impair foreign relations or the deliberative process of the executive branch.

Rep. CONYERS: Has the administration withheld any information based on the signing statement?

Mr. JOHN ELWOOD (Deputy Assistant Attorney General): Chairman Conyers, the answer is no, it hasn't. I think this is an excellent example of how signing statements are not an indication that the law will not be enforced fully. The administration has complied fully, or the Department of Justice has been cooperating fully with the inspector general's investigation there on the use of national security letters.

NAYLOR: But other witnesses at the hearing took a much less benign view. Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, a Republican, said it was a concern that crossed party lines.

Mr. MICKEY EDWARDS (Former Republican Congressman, Oklahoma): I agree with most of these president's policies. I may not agree with the policies of the next president. And future presidents can rely on that unchallenged assertion to disobey future laws. And if that happens, the Congress of the United States will become irrelevant and the basic structure of American government will have been fundamentally changed.

NAYLOR: Harvard law school professor Charles Ogletree raised another controversial signing statement, one attached to the 2006 defense spending bill. The measure contained a provision authored by Republican Senator John McCain specifically barring the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees. But in his signing statement, the president said he would construe that provision consistent with his constitutional authority as commander in chief. Ogletree said many have viewed that statement as defiance of the ban on torture.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Law, Harvard University): President Bush's signing statement undermined that intent which was clearly expressed by Senator McCain and I assume is supported by the members of Congress.

NAYLOR: Citing the torture ban, Conyers had asked the Bush administration to provide him with a list of every provision it has not agreed with and to specify what has been done as a result. And Conyers warned he's not going to take no for an answer.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, The Capitol.

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