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Signing Statements: A Second Look

Friday, February 02, 2007

It occurred to me this morning that we have a problem. As you all may be aware, this president has taken to appending signing statements to bills sent to him by Congress. Most of these signing statements are markups of how he intends to either enforce or disregard new laws. Unfortunately, this new power claimed by this president can no where be found in the Constitution or any of the Federalists Papers that followed to clarify the delegated powers. The Federalist No. 73 speaks directly to the veto power of the president, but says nothing about signing statements. We must conclude that this new power was invented after the fact (and it was).
But, what is the purpose of the veto? If we refer back to the Federalist No. 73, we learn that the veto power acts as a "qualified negative of the President upon the acts or resolutions of the two houses of the legislature; or, in other words, his power of returning all bills with objections, to have the effect of preventing their becoming laws, unless they should afterwards be ratified by two thirds of each of the component members of the legislative body." It not only gave the Executive the ability to shield itself, "but it furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws. It establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body." (...Like being attacked by terrorists and then rushing to pass the PATRIOT Act without first reading it.)
Two points to ponder: The first is to wonder where this new power came from; the second is to understand that the Federalist No. 73 provided a remedy to the president if he encountered a bill that he thought improper.
How do I interpret signing statements? I see them as a way around the checks and balances put in place by the framers of our constitution. By not vetoing bills, the executive is shirking his constitutional duty. He's essentially saying, "Look... I've read this bill and I disagree with part of it. So, instead of sending it back to be rewritten, I've decided to interpret it the way I think it should be written." Unfortunately, the power of interpretation is allotted to the judiciary, not the executive. By doing this, the president has short-circuited the constitution where it provides for checks and balances, not to mention separation of powers. Furthermore, there's nothing I've found that says signing statements have any force under law. How do you defend yourself against a presidential signing statement? I not sure you could.
Additionally, signing statements force the citizenry into fighting these questionable laws in court. The Judiciary branch has shown time and again that it is reactive, not proactive. They are perfectly happy to sit idle even though there may exist on the books mountains of unconstitutional laws. It takes an injured party to bring a case before the court to get them to act. This may mean years of living under unconstitutional laws until someone with enough money and stamina can bring it before the Supreme Court to get it thrown out. The Constitution placed in the hands of the Executive the awesome responsibility to act as the last guard against "the passing of bad laws, through haste, inadvertence, or design." Now this president has pushed this responsibility onto the courts.
We definitely don't want to be governed under this kind of government.


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