December 27, 2006

Signs of Life on Capitol Hill?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a signing statement is a proclamation issued by the White House after the president signs a bill into law that provides clarification to federal agencies about the specific manner in which the president intends to carry out the newly legislated direction of Congress. At times in history, such interpretations have run somewhat counter to the focus of the legislation they have addressed, but they have never been intended to contravene it. Instead, when a president opposes legislation passed by both the House and the Senate, or believes that it is out of line with the Constitution, he may veto it. Congress can then override that veto, but needs a two-thirds majority - rather than a simple majority - to do so. In this manner, checks and balances are maintained between the executive and legislative branches of government.

As chronicled in Abject Failure in the Parliament of Whores, however, President George W. Bush has made unprecedented use of signing statements in ways that dramatically and directly contradict legislation passed by Congress, but has only exercised his veto power once during the time he has occupied the White House. In doing so, he has claimed the authority to disobey nearly 1,100 (and counting) provisions of laws that he himself signed, accruing power to himself and significantly undermining the struture of our system of government. The Republican 109th Congress, which will go down in history as one of the worst ever, sat idly by, refusing to exercise the powers of oversight to which it had been entrusted by the Constitution, and the effects of their dereliction of duty will be felt for years to come.

Without GOP majorities in either the House or the Senate however, there appear to be signs of life on Capitol Hill. Senator Patrick Leahy, who has forcefully declared that he intends to work to restore the balance of power between Congress and the President when he assumes control of the Senate Judiciary Committee, may move dormant legislation like S. 3731, the Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2006, out of committee for consideration by the full Senate. S. 3731 would block the Bush Administration's signing statement power grab on two fronts, mandating that all state and federal courts ignore presidential signing statements, and instructing the Supreme Court to allow either house of Congress to file suit in order to determine the constitutionality of signing statements.

At first blush, such a bill - which requires a presidential signature to become law - would seem to be dead on arrival and without the votes to overcome a veto. That may not be the case however, as S. 3731 was originally introduced by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who may be eager to burnish his (justly) tarnished image as a moderate, and might support Democratic efforts to move the legislation forward. The fact that Specter introduced such a bill back in July is itself potentially indicative that there is a growing realization among even GOP members of Congress that they cannot simply let President Bush do whatever he wants.

Also encouraging has been congressional reaction to President Bush's most recent signing statement. On December 9th, mere hours after signing into law H.R. 5682, the United States Additional Protocol Implementation Act, the president crafted a signing statement that directly overrides several of its key provisions. H.R. 5682, which for the first time in 30 years permits the sale of U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors to India, was controversial among legislators, who have eyed with anxiety India's relatively close relations with Iran, and are concerned about American technology falling into that country's hands.

In order to gain approval for his Indian atomic policy, President Bush conceded to all manner of congressional stipulations about the manner in which the nuclear relationship would be managed, and he declared:
As part of the agreement, the United States and India have committed to take a series of steps to make nuclear cooperation a reality, and we're going to fulfill these commitments. The bill I sign today is one of the most important steps, and it's going to help clear the way for us to move forward with this process.
Unfortunately, directives from Congress have never sat well with this president, and he moved quickly to make that clear in his signing statement, writing that his signature:
... "does not constitute my adoption of the statements of policy (in the law) as U.S. foreign policy." Also in responding to reports mandated by Congress, he would consider how releasing data requested by lawmakers might "impair foreign relations."

In one of its most controversial directives, Congress stipulated in the law that presidents should report annually on India's cooperation in restraining Iran's nuclear program, which Bush has condemned as a major international threat.

In the statement, Bush also said he considered as only "advisory" a congressional directive prohibiting nuclear transfers to India that conflict with guidelines of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which the United States helped establish years ago to restrain nuclear trade.
Reaction from newly-empowered Democrats was - happily - swift and strong enough to hint at a coming showdown. Senator Tom Harkin noted that President Bush was essentially dismissing both the Constitution and Congress, observing that, "With his recent signing statement, once again the president has shown he views Congress as a nuisance rather than an equal branch of government under the Constitution," and that it is "outrageous that the president has repeatedly stated the greatest threat to U.S. national security is a nuclear Iran, yet [he] explicitly rejects Congress' declaration that it shall be the official policy of the United States that India will not use its nuclear technology to help develop Iran's nuclear weapons arsenal."

While it would certainly be disturbing if President Bush was thumbing his nose at Congress because he disagreed with the policy statement within H.R. 5862 regarding India and Iran, the fact of the matter is that he does agree with it. Instead, Mr. Bush has opted to use his most recent signing statement to make clear that he will not brook even the perception that Congress has any say in the matter, or that it may place any restraints on him. The White House drove home that point by responding to Senator Harkin's remarks and explaining that the signing statement is intended to deal with the "domestic issue of government power rather than an issue of international nuclear policy."

It is unclear whether Congress placed the policy language in the bill with the specific aim of confronting President Bush's claims to executive supremacy, but the angry reaction to the H.R. 5862 signing statement is encouraging. Congressional checks and balances on presidential power are crucial to maintaining not just sound foreign policy, but civil liberties and accountability as well, and restoring them should be a top priority for the new Democratic leadership. Wherever one looks, the disastrous effects of unrestrained White House power can be seen, and it is high time to cut George W. Bush's imperial presidency off at the knees.

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