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NPR's Brian Naylor reports on what people are saying about them now.
BRIAN NAYLOR: In his opening statement, Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, gave his answer.
JOHN CONYERS: 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.
LAMAR SMITH: 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 courts themselves have barely glanced at.
NAYLOR: 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.
CONYERS: Has the administration withheld any information based on this signing statement?
JOHN ELWOOD: 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.
MICKEY EDWARDS: I agree with most of this 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.
CHARLES OGLETREE: President Bush's signing statement undermined that intent which was clearly expressed by Senator McCain and I assume supported by other members of Congress.
NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.
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