WASHINGTON — Lawmakers say they will push ahead with a presidential commission designed to root out waste and fraud in military contracts despite President Bush's concerns that it could usurp his authority.
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Bush signed into law on Monday a wide-ranging defense bill that includes instructions to create a commission to investigate defense contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is modeled after a similar commission that was headed by Harry Truman in the 1940s to uncover abuse in military contracts during World War II.
Along with his signature, Bush singled out the commission and three other provisions that could "purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations."
A White House spokeswoman said parts of the contracting provision could be read to require the Justice Department to report whether or not they are prosecuting individuals.
"Under longstanding constitutional principles, the executive branch may protect from disclosure certain sensitive information, including national security information, as well as information about decisions whether to file criminal charges," the spokeswoman, Jeanie Mamo, said late Tuesday. "The signing statement provides notice that the commission's requests for information, if they are too broad, may run afoul of the Constitution."
Such "signing statements" are controversial tools in which the president signs a bill into law but notes portions he may ignore.
Congress rebuffs Bush's move
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush can't just pick and choose.
"His job, under the Constitution, is to faithfully execute the law — every part of it — and I expect him to do just that," she said.
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who sponsored the military contracting provision with fellow Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said Congress intends to move forward with setting up an eight-member commission.
The commission would be bipartisan, with four members appointed by Democratic congressional leaders, two by Republican leaders, one by the president and one by the defense secretary. Panel members would be professionals with expertise in government contracting.
"We don't quite know what the administration intends with this sort of language, but I want all my colleagues to be aware of it and to be aware that it potentially is an infringement on the rights of this legislative body, in effect saying that the president has the authority to ignore a law that is now passed, a law that he has now signed," Webb said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Bill prohibits permanent bases in Iraq
In the signing statement, Bush also reserved the right to ignore expanded whistleblower protections for government contract workers, requirements that U.S. intelligence agencies respond quickly to congressional requests and a prohibition on federal dollars for permanent military bases in Iraq.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that their policy is not to have permanent bases in Iraq, but anti-war groups reacted quickly to the presidential statement.
"This signing statement raises further suspicions that President Bush seeks to establish a permanent presence in Iraq," said John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World. "If Bush is allowed to negotiate a treaty with Iraq that binds the United States under international law, the next president will be handcuffed."
Supporters of the contracting commission say that because of the many reports of fraud and mismanagement in wartime contracts since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, contractors need more federal oversight. McCaskill on Tuesday said Bush should welcome the bipartisan effort.
"It would be devastating for any president to stand in the way of true accountability for war profiteering while men and women are losing their lives," she said.
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