Why Signing Statements Matter
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
– Mark Twain
Over the course of the past year, it has been discovered that President Bush, during his five years in office, has cancelled all or part of 750 laws of Congress, quietly and with the stroke of a pen. These so-called "signing statements" have been used to invalidate laws passed by Congress to do everything from require government reporting on the uses of the Patriot Act’s invasive provisions to banning torture and establishing a special investigator for corruption in Iraq.
The Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is finally holding hearings into this issue, but don’t expect much from a that can’t even get worked up over the White House’s failure to send over key people to testify.
Tony Snow, the president’s smarmy flak, says all those "signing statements" are simply a way for Bush to "express reservations about the constitutionality" of those laws.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), one of the president’s yes-men in Congress, says, "The president is entitled to express his opinion. It’s the courts that determine what the law is. I don’t know why the issue of presidents issuing signing statements is controversial at all."
Well John, here’s the reason: The Constitution.
Remember that hoary document? It’s the one you and the rest of your mealy-mouthed, high-living, coiffed and chauffeured colleagues in Congress swore to uphold when you took office and started collecting your salaries as representatives of the People.
Let’s take a look at that yellowed parchment.
Regarding the powers of the president, Article II says:
The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.
It goes on to define that power, saying:
The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.
The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.
Notice, Tony and John, that there is nothing in there about "signing statements" or about "expressing reservations" about laws passed by Congress.
Now let’s look at what the Constitution says about Congress and its powers. In Article I it says:
All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
The key word there is "all," which kind of precludes the president diddling around with a law afterwards with some "signing statement."
Article I makes its point clearer, adding that Congress has the power:
To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
That really doesn’t leave a lot of room for presidential interpretation, does it?
So why do we care, John?
Well, let’s for a moment pretend that we all think that Bush is just a swimmingly competent president, that he is beloved and respected by 99 percent of the public, and that he has an unerring sense of what is right. No seriously. Stop laughing. It’s just for the sake of argumentGot your breath back?
Okay, so suppose we then let this towering paragon of erudition and virtue go ahead and second-guess the Congress, and just ex out whatever laws or provisions of laws that he deems unwise.
Well, it won’t stop there. Although the self-involved, self-aggrandizing members of Congress may only care about who’s greasing their palms tomorrow, in a little more than two years, there’s going to be another president and another Congress.
If this president is allowed to get away with undermining Congress’ constitutional power in this egregious manner, the next president, whether it’s Bill Frist, the Newt, Hillary Clinton or Al Gore, will take office with Bush’s definition of presidential power as his or her starting point.
Is that what you guys want?
Why not just scrap the Constitution, then? Why waste all that valuable space in the Library of Congress exhibiting a document that has ceased to have any meaning?
For that matter, why are we bothering to elect you guys? You-and here I mean the Republicans and most of the Democrats in the House and Senate–are daily proving that you view your own jobs as essentially meaningless.
If you can’t see or admit how this president is undermining the whole concept of separation of powers, and establishing himself, and the presidency, as a dictatorship in all but name, if you won’t stand up in defense of your own institution and the Constitution you were sworn to uphold, you should all be fired, and the Congress abolished as a massive waste of taxpayer money.
Fortunately, we have an alternative, which is also laid out in the Constitution. That is election and impeachment.
If you and your current colleagues won’t call the president to account over these subversive "signing statements," we the People are going to have to oust a bunch of you this November. Then we’ll have to hold the feet of those who are left to the fire, and demand impeachment hearings to declare this president a perpetrator of High Crimes against the Constitution.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book, "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky, is due out May 1.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org