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Congress questions Bush ignoring laws

The Senate Judiciary Committee is opening hearings this week into what has become the White House’s favorite tool for overriding Congress in the name of wartime national security: the president's claim that he can ignore the laws he signs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The White House spokesman is defending Bush's practice of adding statements to laws he signs, in order to limit the impact.

Press Secretary Tony Snow says Bush needs to "express reservations about the constitutionality of certain provisions."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter opened hearings today on the signing statements. Bush has used the statements on some 750 statutes passed by Congress, including such high-profile issues as a ban on torture and renewal of the Patriot Act.

Specter calls Bush's tactics "a challenge to the plain language of the Constitution."

Senator Dianne Feinstein says the statements are "a means to undermine and weaken the law." The California Democrat says if Bush wants to block all or part of a bill, he should veto it.

A Justice Department lawyer says Bush's statements are justified in part by the need to protect national security after 9/11.

How signing statements work
A bill becomes the rule of the land when Congress passes it and the president signs it into law.

However, 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.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., demanded a hearing on the 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.”

Specter’s committee says the Bush administration has challenged many  more statutes passed by Congress than any other president, . 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?”

Quietly inserted
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.