Livin' it up, American style

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Undermining American laws, one signing statement at a time.

Signing statements have been around for a while, but they have been used more and more frequently by recent presidents, with George W. Bush as the most profligate and controversial user of this power. A signing statement is used by the president when he gets a new bill to either pass or veto. Instead of vetoing the bill, the president can issue a signing statement next to the part or parts of the bill with which he disagrees. In this statement, the president says that he will interpret the law in a way that will not interfere with presidential authority. Or he can say that one part of the bill is just advisory, and not really mandatory like Congress wrote it to be. Basically, a signing statement is as if the president put an asterix next to a certain paragraph and said he is not going to enforce or follow this part of the bill because he's the president and these rules don't apply to him.

Never mind the whole Constitutional thing that says that only Congress has the power to MAKE laws, the Supreme Court interprets laws, and the President ENFORCES the laws. In order to enforce a law, the president kind of has to follow it. But in the case of the signing statement, the president can effectively pick and choose which part of a bill he thinks he will follow or ignore. These signing statements are virtually identical to a power called the line-item veto. With a line-item veto, the president would have the power to nullify certain lines of a bill. President Clinton was briefly given this power in 1996, ostensibly to control pork barrel spending. Well, Clinton only had this power for a few months, then the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal. The Supreme Court has revisited this issue several times since, and has continually ruled it illegal. Bush even asked for the power of the line-item veto in his 2006 State of the Union address. I don't know why he even bothered, since he has been using signing statements in exactly the way he would be using the line-item veto.

The use of signing statements really took off during the Reagan administration, when a little known staff attorney in the Department of Justice, named Samuel Alito, recommended the use of signing statements to "increase the power of the executive to shape the law". Bush has taken that recommendation of a now Supreme Court judge to heart, issuing 750 signing statements so far. One of Bush's most outrageous signing statements was regarding the McCain detainee amendment in a Department of Defense bill. This amendment prohibited the use of inhumane treatment and restricted the use of torture on detainees and prisoners. But Bush didn't like that idea, so he just issued a signing statement saying that he would interpret this amendment as consistent with the authority of the president to "protect the American people from further terrorist attacks." In others words, he's still going to use torture if he wants to.

Americans need to be worried about the use of these signing statements. The US constitution lays out a division of powers among the three branches of the government, but signing statements allow a president to both make and interpret laws, a power he was not given. The system of checks and balances is being undermined, and the executive branch of the government is growing more powerful than it was intended to be. And unfortunately they are using this power to support torture and take away more and more American's rights.


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