The expansion of presidential powers by the Bush administration came under strong criticism on Tuesday from Democratic senators, who during a Senate hearing accused George W. Bush of “making unprecedented claims for unchecked power”.
Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, who has been at the forefront of raising questions on presidential power, held hearings on Tuesday for the first time on the use of presidential “signing statements”. These attachments to the bill contain instructions on how the executive branch intends to carry out legislation, and often provide a way for the executive to ignore congressional intent.
The issue has attracted scrutiny following a study by the Boston Globe this year that found that Mr Bush had employed signing statements for more than 750 laws enacted by the Republican Congress. “That’s far more than all the signing statements signed by every single president from George Washington to Bill Clinton, put together,” said Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator, during the hearing.
Bush’s contention that he can ignore provisions of the Patriot Act, whose renewal he ushered last month, has drawn a bit of scrutiny. (Jim Young/ Reuters)
Concern has focused on whether Mr Bush has used the low-profile statements to side-step congressional authority, rather than publicly issue a presidential veto of legislation.
Mr Bush has never issued a formal veto. “Basically, the president signs laws enacted by people’s representatives in Congress but he’s crossing his fingers behind his back. And when he says he never had to make a veto, heck, why? He just signs laws saying he is not going to follow them,” Mr Leahy added.
The most controversial use of a signing statement came this year after the Senate voted to pass a prohibition on certain kinds of interrogation procedures. After lengthy negotiations with Senator John McCain agreeing the terms of an amendment, the administration “issued a signing statement which appeared to undercut what had been negotiated”, said Mr Specter.
Mr Leahy also offered the example of how Mr Bush had used a signing statement to narrow a provision protecting corporate whistle-blowers in the Sarbanes-Oxley law. That effort, however, was later overturned after congressional pressure.
Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator for Illinois, said: “I’m afraid this is part of a much larger pattern which we’ve seen in the last several years, at least since 9/11, where this Congress continues to cede its authority and power to the executive branch.” He accused Republicans of being “complicit in ceding this power”.
Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, defended use of the statements, calling them “helpful to understand the rationale of the executive branch”. That point was echoed by Michelle Boardman, the deputy assistant attorney-general, who said that every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower had issued a signing statement.
Democrats have been seeking to make executive power a theme in mid-term elections. Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator, said the “calculated expansion of executive power was one of the lasting legacies of this administration, which could have a more lasting impact on this country than any other issue”.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006