Constitutional showdown?

August 02, 2006

How openly can a president express his displeasure with a law without actually vetoing it? President Bush has been pushing the limit by offering far more statements than any of his predecessors, at the time he signs a bill into law, as to whether he will enforce certain provisions. These disapproving signing statements have come under increasing attack - as they should. Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter, who heads the Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would allow Congress to challenge a signing statement that disputed the words or meaning of a statute. The bill's prospects are uncertain, but at least Mr. Specter is willing to stand up to yet another assertion of power by an arrogant White House.

The matter would seem to be pretty straightforward: Under the Constitution, Congress passes bills and the president approves or disapproves, by exercising his veto power or signing a bill into law. Presidents as far back as James Monroe have used bill-signings to elaborate on their views about the law at hand. But no president has been quite as contentious about signing statements as Mr. Bush.

A study by The Boston Globe published in April revealed that he has used the statements to assert his right to disobey more than 750 laws since he assumed office, taking issue with anti-torture protection for detainees, whistle-blower protections for federal employees and certain provisions of the Patriot Act, among other things. And a recent American Bar Association report also put his penchant for disputing legislation in context by noting that Mr. Bush's predecessors collectively challenged about 600 legislative provisions, while he has far surpassed that total in less than six years.

Mr. Bush may have a point that Congress doesn't make it easy to reject one or two offensive provisions when bills are loaded with often-extraneous parts. But that's no excuse. The ABA report and Mr. Specter would seem to have the better argument: that challenging legislation through presidential signing statements strains the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Perhaps the courts will have to convince Mr. Bush that when he wants to dispute Congress' judgment, he should exercise his constitutional veto power - which he used for the first time last month - more often.

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