`Signing statements' faulted

ABA report says Bush moves hurt checks, balances

July 24, 2006|By MARK SILVA | MARK SILVA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has vetoed only one piece of legislation during more than five years in office, but he has issued more than 800 challenges to bills that he has signed into law with formal "signing statements," more than all his predecessors combined.

Now, a task force of the American Bar Association has concluded that the president's signing statements pose a dangerous challenge to the constitutional checks and balances central to power in the United States. One signing statement reserves the right to torture detainees held in the war on terrorism.

The ABA report, to be released today, calls on Congress to exert more oversight and empower the courts to review signing statements asserting the president's right to "ignore or not enforce laws." If the president's use of signing statements goes unchecked, said ABA President Michael Greco, it "raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy."

This is hardly the first report or court ruling to raise concerns about Bush's exercise of executive authority, with the Supreme Court recently overruling the president's decision to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with military tribunals without the approval of Congress. The president has asserted sweeping wartime powers since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The White House contends that Bush is not attempting a grab for executive power and that he is not flouting the laws that he signs with the issuance of signing statements, but rather raising constitutional concerns.

"The president does not, and the administration does not, refuse to carry out the laws that have been passed by Congress and signed into law by the president," said White House press secretary Tony Snow, who said Bush is not engaging in "civil disobedience."

"In the context of trying to preserve and protect and defend the Constitution ... there will be places within signing statements - caveats - where he has reservations," Snow said. "It is not unusual - although we have done it more than previous administrations - to list those reservations, if nothing else, as markers for issues that may later rise to be points of controversy."

But this does not square with many of the administration's own signing statements, said Neal Sonnett, a Miami lawyer and former U.S. attorney and chairman of the ABA task force making the report today.

"It's clear that a large number of the signing statements that have been issued by this administration claim the authority to disregard the law," Sonnett said. "This president is not the first president to do that. But he clearly has escalated the practice to what the task force believes is a dangerous new high. That has an impact on the separation of powers, and if it's left unchecked it could do damage to our system and to the Constitution."

The ABA report notes the breadth of Bush's signing statements, saying: "From the inception of the republic until 2000, presidents produced fewer than 600 signing statements taking issue with the bills they signed. According to the most recent update, in his 1 1/2 terms so far, President George Walker Bush ... has produced more than 800."

The numbers do not represent separate signing statements, the ABA notes, but rather the specific number of challenges to laws contained within many signing statements. As of July 11, the ABA found that Bush has issued 807 challenges.

While the White House has asserted that it only expresses reservations, the ABA has noted examples in which the White House has indicated its intentions not to follow provisions in:

Two bills forbidding use of military intelligence in materials "not lawfully collected."

A bill requiring a report to Congress on the use of the USA Patriot Act to secretly search homes or seize private papers.

The "McCain amendment" forbidding any U.S. official from torturing a prisoner. While the Bush administration insists it does not condone torture, the president's signing statement in December reserved the right to waive the torture ban if harsh interrogation might advance efforts to fight terrorism.

The Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002 requiring regular reports to Congress. The signing statement on intelligence reports to Congress called the requirement "advisory" and asserted that it "would be construed in a manner consistent with the president's constitutional authority to withhold information" that could impair foreign relations or national security if released.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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