A bill becomes the rule of the land when Congress passes it and the president signs it into law, right?
Not necessarily, according to the White House. A law is not binding when a president issues a separate statement saying he reserves the right to revise, interpret or disregard it on national security and constitutional grounds.
That’s the argument a Bush administration official is expected to make Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has demanded a hearing on a practice he considers an example of the administration’s abuse of power.
“It’s a challenge to the plain language of the Constitution,” Specter said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m interested to hear from the administration just what research they’ve done to lead them to the conclusion that they can cherry-pick.”
Apparently, enough to challenge many more statutes passed by Congress than any other president, Specter’s committee says. The White House does not dispute that, but notes that Bush is hardly the first chief executive to issue them.
“Signing statements have long been issued by presidents, dating back to Andrew Jackson all the way through President Clinton,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday.
Abuse of executive power?
Specter’s hearing is about more than the statements. He’s been compiling a list of White House practices he bluntly says could amount to abuse of executive power — from warrantless domestic wiretapping program to sending officials to hearings who refuse to answer lawmakers’ questions.
But the session also concerns countering any influence Bush’s signing statements may have on court decisions regarding the new laws. Courts can be expected to look to the legislature for intent, not the executive, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., a former state judge.
“There’s less here than meets the eye,” Cornyn said. “The president is entitled to express his opinion. It’s the courts that determine what the law is.”
But Specter and his allies maintain that Bush is doing an end-run around the veto process. In his presidency’s sixth year, Bush has yet to issue a single veto that could be overridden with a two-thirds majority in each house.
Instead, he has issued hundreds of signing statements invoking his right to interpret or ignore laws on everything from whistleblower protections to how Congress oversees the Patriot Act.
“It means that the administration does not feel bound to enforce many new laws which Congress has passed,” said David Golove, a New York University law professor who specializes in executive power issues. “This raises profound rule of law concerns. Do we have a functioning code of federal laws?”
Signing statements don’t carry the force of law, and other presidents have issued them for administrative reasons, such as instructing an agency how to put a certain law into effect. They usually are inserted quietly into the federal record.
Bush’s signing statement in March on Congress’s renewal of the Patriot Act riled Specter and others who labored for months to craft a compromise between Senate and House versions, and what the White House wanted. Reluctantly, the administration relented on its objections to new congressional oversight of the way the FBI searches for terrorists.
Bush signed the bill with much flag-waving fanfare. Then he issued a signing statement asserting his right to bypass the oversight provisions in certain circumstances.
Specter isn’t sure how much Congress can do to check the practice. “We may figure out a way to tie it to the confirmation process or budgetary matters,” he said.