For Bush, vetoes no, 'signing statements' yes

President's technique draws fire from activist groups, ABA

July 30, 2006|By LARRY WILLIAMS | LARRY WILLIAMS,IDEAS EDITOR

When George W. Bush recently vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding of stem cell research, there was much ado about the fact that it was his first veto move since taking office in 2001.

And, in fact, it was remarkable. Only Thomas Jefferson made it through two full terms without a veto. Jefferson's restraint was based on his personal belief that only legislation that appeared to violate mandates of the U.S. Constitution should be vetoed.

Bush has had a different method. When the president disagrees with a law or some element within it, he signs the legislation and then adds a letter explaining what parts he intends to follow and which he won't.

These "signing statements" give Bush something like a line-item veto, something the president has been pushing the Republican Congress to give him legislatively - with little success thus far.

Through the first two centuries of this republic, presidents have issued a total of only about 600 signing statements. Bush has done it more than 800 times over the last five and a half years.

Last week, an American Bar Association task force issued a report saying Bush's habit of writing exceptions to laws he has just signed violates the Constitution. "This report raises serious concerns crucial to the survival to our democracy," said the ABA's president, Michael Greco. "If left unchecked, the president's practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries."

Last month, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow defended the practice, saying "it's important for the president at least to express reservations about the constitutionality of certain provisions."

But critics of the Bush practice say the president is actually trying to executive power by using the letters to promote something called the "unitary executive theory."

That theory, promoted by Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal advisors, asserts that the president rather than Congress or the judiciary should decide how to carry out the duties of his office.

Early this year when President Bush signed a bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law through a signing statement asserting his powers as commander in chief.

Elisa Massimino, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, sharply criticized Bush's signing statement in that instance.

The ABA report recommended that the president follow Jefferson's example and limit future signing statements to legislation he believes may be unconstitutional and proposed Congress pass a new law opening the door to challenges by Congress or individuals to future signing statements by the president.

How veto has been used

All but seven presidents have exercised their veto power. Thomas Jefferson is the only two-term president never to have vetoed a bill.

Presidents who issued the most vetoes

Franklin RooseveltM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7635

Grover ClevelandM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7584

Harry TrumanM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7250

Dwight EisenhowerM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7181

Ulysses GrantM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-793

Vetoes among recent presidents

George W. BushM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-71

Bill ClintonM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-737

George H.W. BushM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-744

Ronald ReaganM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-778

Jimmy CarterM-yM-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-7M-731

Number of presidential vetoes overridden by Congress since 1789

106 of 2551

Source: Congressional Research Service

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