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US Civil Liberties

Signing Statements

Project: US Civil Liberties
Open-Content project managed by Paul, KJF, mtuck, paxvector

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Young conservative White House lawyer John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), an advocate of expanded presidential powers (see June-July 1983 and October 1983), expands on his previous argument that the president’s papers and documents should remain secret and unavailable to the public (see February 13, 1984). Roberts writes that the Reagan administration should oppose a bill pending in Congress that would make the National Archives a separate agency, independent of the White House. Roberts writes that the “legislation could grant the archivist [the head of the National Archives] some independence from presidential control, with all the momentous constitutional consequences that would entail.” Others in the White House disagree with Roberts, and the administration does not oppose the bill. Roberts suggests that President Reagan attach a signing statement to the bill making it clear that Reagan has the power to fire the archivist if he/she tries to disobey the White House in releasing a presidential document. [Savage, 2007, pp. 258]

Entity Tags: National Archives and Records Administration, Reagan administration, John G. Roberts, Jr

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Steven Calabresi joins the Justice Department. Calabresi is a young conservative lawyer who has clerked for appeals court Robert Bork, who failed to secure a position on the Supreme Court just months before (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society of conservative lawyers and judges, joins forces with another ambitious young Justice Department lawyer, John Harrison, and the two begin working to expand the power of the president. Calabresi and Harrison decide that an aggressive use of presidential signing statements can advance the president’s authority to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. Unfazed by a recent judicial rejection of just such signing statement usage (see 1984-1985), Calabresi and Harrison write a memo to Attorney General Edwin Meese advocating the issuing of more signing statements as part of a larger strategy to increase the president’s influence over the law. Calabresi and Harrison are interested in how what they call “activist judges” use the legislative history of a bill that became law to interpret that law’s meaning in subsequent judicial actions. The two lawyers believe that by issuing signing statements, the president can create a parallel record of presidential interpretations of potentially ambiguous laws to help guide judicial decisions. Meese approves of the idea, and in December has the West Publishing Company, which prints the US Code Congressional and Administration News, the standard collection of bills’ legislative history, begin including presidential signing statements in its publications. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call Meese’s move “a major step in increasing the perceived legitimacy of the device.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232] In 2007, Calabresi will say: “I initially thought of signing statements as presidential legislative history. I’ve subsequently come to think of them as being important vehicles by which presidents can control subordinates in the executive branch. They subsequently came to be important to the unitary executive [theory of presidential power].” [Savage, 2007, pp. 234]

Entity Tags: John Harrison, Charlie Savage, Federalist Society, West Publishing Company, US Department of Justice, Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Steven Calabresi, US Supreme Court

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Ralph Tarr, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, drafts a memo explaining how the White House has issued signing statements up until now (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985), and makes recommendations on how to improve the process. Tarr, acting at the behest of an aide to Attorney General Edwin Meese, issues what author Charlie Savage will call “a prescient seven-page manifesto.” Tarr writes that signing statements are “presently underutilized and could become far more important as a tool of presidential management of the agencies, a device for preserving issues of importance in the ongoing struggle for power with Congress, and an aid to statutory interpretation for the courts.” Tarr writes that signing statements have the potential to be used as a threat “with which to negotiate concessions from Congress.” The statements can also be used to tell executive branch agencies how to interpret a law: “The president can direct agencies to ignore unconstitutional provisions or to read provisions in a way that eliminates constitutional or policy problems. This direction permits the president to seize the initiative in creating what will eventually be the agency’s interpretation.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232-233]

Entity Tags: Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage, Ralph Tarr, Reagan administration, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Justice Department lawyer Samuel Alito, a member of the department’s Litigation Strategy Working Group, writes a memo advocating the creation of a pilot project designed to increase the frequency and impact of presidential signing statements (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985 and October 1985). The rationale is to use signing statements to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” Alito focuses on the use of signing statements to parallel the legislative history of a bill, a relatively modest view, but still recognizes the potentially revolutionary nature of the idea. He writes that signing statements must be used incrementally, so as not to draw undue attention from civil libertarians and key Congressional members. “[D]ue to the novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power,” he writes, “[C]ongress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get the last word on questions of interpretation.” Alito suggests that President Reagan begin issuing signing statements only on bills affecting the Justice Department, and later issue such statements for bills that affect other areas of the federal government. “As an introductory step, our interpretative statements should be of moderate size and scope,” he writes. “Only relatively important questions should be addressed. We should concentrate on points of true ambiguity, rather than issuing interpretations that may seem to conflict with those of Congress. The first step will be to convince the courts that presidential signing statements are valuable interpretive tools.” President Reagan will issue signing statements that challenge, interpret, or actually rewrite 95 sections of bills, far more than any other president. His successor, George H. W. Bush, will challenge 232 sections of bills. [Savage, 2007, pp. 233-234]

Entity Tags: Litigation Strategy Working Group, George Herbert Walker Bush, Samuel Alito, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Walter Dellinger, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, writes of the necessity for presidential signing statements: “If the president may properly decline to enforce a law, at least when it unconstitutionally encroaches on his powers, then it arguably follows that he may properly announce to Congress and to the public that he will not enforce a provision of an enactment he is signing. If so, then a signing statement that challenges what the president determines to be an unconstitutional encroachment on his power, or that announces the president’s unwillingness to enforce… such a provision, can be a valid and reasonable exercise of presidential authority.” President Clinton will issue signing statements challenging or commenting on 140 legislative provisions during his eight years in office (see February 1996). [Savage, 2007, pp. 235]

Entity Tags: Walter Dellinger, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Clinton administration, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a military budget that includes a section requiring the Pentagon to discharge all HIV-positive soldiers, regardless of their overall health. When President Clinton signs the bill, he issues a signing statement declaring he has “concluded that this discriminatory provision is unconstitutional.” He urges Congress to repeal the statute, and says he will refuse to allow the Justice Department to defend the law in court if an HIV-positive soldier sues the government. However, Clinton’s legal team, including the Justice Department’s head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Walter Dellinger, and White House counsel Jack Quinn, tells reporters that while Clinton believes the provision is unconstitutional, he cannot refuse to enforce it because no court ruling has supported his view. Until a court intervenes, the president is bound by Congress’s decision. “When the president’s obligation to execute laws enacted by Congress is in tension with his responsibility to act in accordance to the Constitution, questions arise that really go to the very heart of the system, and the president can decline to comply with the law, in our view, only where there is a judgment that the Supreme Court has resolved the issue.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 235-236]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jack Quinn, Walter Dellinger, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

According to reporter and author Charlie Savage, the White House staff quickly coalesces into two camps: “Bush People[,] mostly personal friends of the new president who shared his inexperience in Washington,” which includes President Bush’s top legal counsels, Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, both corporate lawyers in Texas before joining Bush in Washington. The second group is “Cheney People—allies from [Vice-President Dick] Cheney’s earlier stints in the federal government (see May 25, 1975, November 18, 1980, 1981-1992, 1989, and June 1996) who were deeply versed in Washington-level issues, a familiarity that would allow their views to dominate internal meetings. These included [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and other cabinet secretaries, key deputies throughout the administration, and David Addington, Cheney’s longtime aide who would become a chief architect of the administration’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism” (see July 1, 1992 and (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Savage will observe, “Given the stark contrast in experience between Cheney and Bush, it was immediately clear to observers of all political stripes that Cheney would possess far more power than had any prior vice president.”
'Unprecedented' Influence - Cheney will certainly have “unprecedented” influence, according to neoconservative publisher William Kristol, who himself had served as former Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. “The question to ask about Cheney,” Kristol will write, is “will he be happy to be a very trusted executor of Bush’s policies—a confidant and counselor who suggests personnel and perhaps works on legislative strategy, but who really doesn’t try to change Bush’s mind about anything? Or will he actually, substantively try to shape administration policy in a few areas, in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise be going?”
Expanding the Power of the Presidency - Cheney will quickly answer that question, Savage will write, by attempting to “expand the power of the presidency.” Savage will continue: “He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge a zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action, to undermine limits imposed by international treaties, to nominate judges who favored a stronger presidency, and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government. And Cheney’s vision of expanded executive power was not limited to his and Bush’s own tenure in office. Rather, Cheney wanted to permanently alter the constitutional balance of American government, establishing powers that future presidents would be able to wield as well.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 7-9] Larry Wilkerson, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, will say after leaving the administration: “We used to say about both [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office] and the vice president’s office that they were going to win nine out of 10 battles, because they were ruthless, because they have a strategy, because they never, never deviate from that strategy. They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make it in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly, foist it on the government—and the rest of the government is all confused.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 299]
Signing Statements to Reshape Legislation, Expand Presidential Power - To that end, Cheney ensures that all legislation is routed through his office for review before it reaches Bush’s desk. Addington goes through every bill for any new provisions that conceivably might infringe on the president’s power as Addington interprets it, and drafts signing statements for Bush to sign. In 2006, White House counsel Bradford Berenson will reflect: “Signing statements unite two of Addington’s passions. One is executive power. And the other is the inner alleyways of bureaucratic combat. It’s a way to advance executive power through those inner alleyways.… So he’s a vigorous advocate of signing statements and including important objections in signing statements. Most lawyers in the White House regard the bill review process as a tedious but necessary bureaucratic aspect of the job. Addington regarded it with relish. He would dive into a 200-page bill like it was a four-course meal.” It will not be long before White House and Justice Department lawyers begin vetting legislation themselves, with Addington’s views in mind. “You didn’t want to miss something,” says a then-lawyer in the White House. [Savage, 2007, pp. 236]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Bradford Berenson, Alberto R. Gonzales, Charlie Savage, William Kristol, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), Harriet E. Miers, George W. Bush, Lawrence Wilkerson

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a law creating the Institute of Education Sciences, a subsidiary of the Department of Education. The new institute is designed to generate independent statistics about student performance. The law stipulates that the institute’s director may conduct and publish research “without the approval of the secretary [of education] or any other office of the department.” President Bush issues a signing statement indicating that contrary to the law, the director will be responsible to the secretary of education. Since the president has the power to control the actions of all executive branch officials, the statement asserts, “the director of the Institute of Education Sciences shall [be] subject to the supervision and direction of the secretary of education.” Bush’s signing statement directly contradicts the letter and the intent of Congress’s law. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240]

Entity Tags: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a law that states US officials in Iraq cannot prevent an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority from carrying out any investigation. The inspector general will inform Congress if officials refuse to cooperate with his inquiries. President Bush issues a signing statement directly contradicting the law. According to Bush’s statement, the inspector general “shall refrain” from investigating anything involving sensitive plans, intelligence, national security, or anything already being investigated by the Pentagon. The inspector cannot tell Congress anything if the president decides that disclosing the information would impair foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Coalition Provisional Authority, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes an intelligence bill that requires the Justice Department to inform it as to how often and in what situation the FBI is using special “national security” wiretaps on US soil. The bill also requires the Justice Department to give oversight committees copies of administration memos outlining any new interpretations of domestic-spying laws. It contains 11 other sections mandating reports about such issues as civil liberties, security clearances, border security, and counternarcotics efforts. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement asserting his right to ignore or override every element of it. He can and will withhold information from Congress as he sees fit, he claims in the statement. [Savage, 2007, pp. 238-239]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements, NSA Wiretapping / Stellar Wind

Congress passes a law requiring the director of national intelligence (DNI) to recruit and train women and minorities to be spies, analysts, and translators in order to ensure diversity in the intelligence community. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement ordering the executive branch—including the DNI—to construe the law in a manner consistent with a constitutional clause guaranteeing “equal protection” for all: a legalistic phrasing designed to sidestep the law. Bush has long been an opponent of any sort of affirmative action program; as recently as 2003, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration’s “equal protection” arguments and in favor of a race-conscious affirmative action program. In his signing statement, Bush advances the “equal protection” argument over affirmative action in spite of the Supreme Court’s rejection of that argument. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240-241]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Office of the Director of National Intelligence, US Supreme Court, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a law forbidding US troops in Colombia, who are there advising the government in its struggle against Marxist rebels funded by drug money, from engaging in any combat against the rebels except in self-defense. The law also caps the number of American soldiers deployed in Colombia at 800. President Bush issues a signing statement that only he, as the commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces. Therefore, the executive branch will construe the law “as advisory in nature.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Public administration specialist Philip Cooper determines that during his first term, George W. Bush issued over 500 objections to Congressional legislation that he signed into law. Almost all of his objections were codified in presidential “signing statements,” which have no legal weight per se but have been used by Bush and previous presidents to cite objections or exceptions to legislative provisions. Although the administration’s point man on signing statements is David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s legal adviser and chief of staff, most of the legal objections for the statements are sourced from the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget. 82 of Bush’s signing statements are based on the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power (see January 9-13, 2006), 77 relate to the administration’s perception of the president’s exclusive power over foreign policy, 48 to his power to withhold information required by Congress to protect national security, and 37 to his powers as commander in chief. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007]

Entity Tags: Philip Cooper, David S. Addington, Office of Management and Budget, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a law that forbids the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and their contractors from firing or otherwise punishing any employee who informs Congress about possible wrongdoing. President Bush issues a signing statement that says only he or his appointees will decide whether employees of either agency can give information to Congress. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, US Department of Energy

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements, Government Acting in Secret

Congress passes a law requiring the Customs and Border Patrol to relocate its illegal immigrant checkpoints near Tucson, Arizona, every seven days in order to prevent smugglers from being able to avoid those checkpoints. President Bush signs the law, then issues a signing statement saying that the Border Patrol should view the “relocation provision as advisory rather than mandatory” because, in his view, only the president has the constitutional authority to decide how to deploy law enforcement officers. As a result of Bush’s signing statement, Border Patrol authorities disobey the law, and explain to investigators from the Government Accountability Office that the law is not mandatory, but “advisory.” White House spokesman Tony Fratto later says in response to the Border Patrol’s refusal to obey the law: “The signing statements certainly do and should have an impact. They are real.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 242-243; Boston Globe, 6/19/2007]

Entity Tags: US Customs and Border Protection, George W. Bush, Tony Fratto, Government Accountability Office

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Other Legal Changes, Signing Statements

After months of opposition and a recent, clandestine rewriting of the bill (see Before December 30, 2005), President Bush signs the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) into law, effectively outlawing torture by government and military officials (see December 15, 2005). However, Bush also inserts a signing statement into the record reserving for himself the right to ignore the law under his powers as commander in chief if he judges that torturing a prisoner is in the interest of national security (see December 30, 2005). Signing statements have no legal status, but serve to inform the nation as to how the president interprets a particular law. In this case, Bush writes that he will waive the restrictions on torture if he feels it is necessary to protect national security. “We consider ourselves bound by the prohibition on cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment,” says a senior administration official, but under unusual circumstances—a “ticking time bomb” scenario, for example, where a detainee is believed to have information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack, Bush’s responsibility to protect the nation will supersede the law. Law professor David Golove is critical of the White House’s position, saying: “The signing statement is saying ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it’s important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.’ They don’t want to come out and say it directly because it doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s unmistakable to anyone who has been following what’s going on.” Bush has issued numerous signing statements signaling his intent to flaunt the law in the areas of domestic surveillance, detaining terrorist suspects without due legal process, and previous legislation forbidding the torture of prisoners. Many legal and civil rights organizations believe that Bush’s signing statement is part of his push for a “unitary executive,” where the president has virtually unlimited powers in the areas of foreign policy and national security, and neither Congress nor the courts have the right to limit his powers (see April 30, 1986). Former Justice Department official and law professor Marty Lederman says: “The whole point of the McCain Amendment was to close every loophole. The president has re-opened the loophole by asserting the constitutional authority to act in violation of the statute where it would assist in the war on terrorism.” Human Rights Watch director Elisa Massamino calls the signing statement an “in-your-face affront” to both McCain and to Congress. “The basic civics lesson that there are three co-equal branches of government that provide checks and balances on each other is being fundamentally rejected by this executive branch. Congress is trying to flex its muscle to provide those checks [on detainee abuse], and it’s being told through the signing statement that it’s impotent. It’s quite a radical view.” [Boston Globe, 1/4/2006; Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Detainee Treatment Act, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Bush administration (43), David Golove, Elisa Massamino

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Category Tags: Gov't Violations of Prisoner Rights, Signing Statements, Detainee Treatment Act

Congress passes a law that says when Congress makes a request, scientific information “prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay.” President Bush contradicts this legal assertion in a signing statement that says he can order researchers to withhold any information from Congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security, or the workings of the executive branch. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Signing Statements, Government Acting in Secret

In his column for the legal website FindLaw, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes: “Rather than veto laws passed by Congress, [George W.] Bush is using his signing statements to effectively nullify them as they relate to the executive branch. These statements, for him, function as directives to executive branch departments and agencies as to how they are to implement the relevant law.… Bush has quietly been using these statements to bolster presidential powers. It is a calculated, systematic scheme that has gone largely unnoticed.… It is as if no law had been passed on the matter at all.… Bush is using signing statements like line item vetoes.” Dean writes that Bush’s signing statement for the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005) marks the first time that serious media attention has been focused on the statements. He writes, “Despite the McCain Amendment’s clear anti-torture stance, the military may feel free to use torture anyway, based on the President’s attempt to use a signing statement to wholly undercut the bill.” [FindLaw, 1/13/2006]

Entity Tags: John Dean, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements, Detainee Treatment Act

Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far.Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far. [Source: MeFeedia]Legal scholars and constitutional experts decry President Bush’s claim that he can ignore or disobey laws with impunity. An examination by Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage finds that to date, Bush has claimed the authority to disobey over 750 laws enacted since he took office (see January 20, 2001 and After, After September 11, 2001, January 27, 2002, November 5, 2002, March 12, 2004 and After, November 6, 2003, December 2004, December 17, 2004, Dec. 23, 2004, January 17, 2005, August 8, 2005, October 18, 2005, December 30, 2005, and January 23, 2006). He claims that as president, he has the power to override any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. While the Constitution assigns Congress the power to write the laws and the president the duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Bush asserts that he has no mandate to “execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional. Administration spokespersons have repeatedly said that Bush “will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution,” but it is Bush who decides what is and is not constitutional. Many legal scholars disagree with Bush’s position, and accuse him of attempting to usurp Congressional power for himself.
Philip Cooper - Law professor Phillip Cooper says over the Bush administration’s tenure, it has relentlessly worked to concentrate ever more governmental power into the White House. “There is no question that this administration has been involved in a very carefully thought-out, systematic process of expanding presidential power at the expense of the other branches of government,” Cooper says. “This is really big, very expansive, and very significant.”
Christopher Kelley - Political science professor Christopher Kelley notes that Bush uses signing statements to abrogate Congressional powers in a manner inconsistent with Constitutional mandates. “He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises—and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened,” Kelley says.
David Golove - Law professor David Golove says Bush has besmirched “the whole idea that there is a rule of law” because no one can be certain of which laws Bush thinks are valid and which he thinks he can ignore. “Where you have a president who is willing to declare vast quantities of the legislation that is passed during his term unconstitutional, it implies that he also thinks a very significant amount of the other laws that were already on the books before he became president are also unconstitutional,” Golove says. To the extent that Bush is interpreting the Constitution in defiance of Supreme Court rulings, Golove notes, he threatens to “overturn the existing structures of constitutional law.” When a president ignores the Court and is not restrained by a Congress that enables his usurpations, Golove says, the Constitution can be made to simply “disappear.” Golove adds, “Bush has essentially said that ‘We’re the executive branch and we’re going to carry this law out as we please, and if Congress wants to impeach us, go ahead and try it.’”
Jack Beerman - Law professor Jack Beermann says: “The president is daring Congress to act against his positions, and they’re not taking action because they don’t want to appear to be too critical of the president, given that their own fortunes are tied to his because they are all Republicans. Oversight gets much reduced in a situation where the president and Congress are controlled by the same party.”
Steven Calabresi - Former Justice Department official Steven Calabresi, who came up with the idea of using signing statements to counter Congressional powers during the Reagan administration (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985), now says, “I think what the administration has done in issuing no vetoes and scores of signing statements (see September 2007) is not the right way to approach this.”
Bruce Fein - Former Reagan Justice Department official Bruce Fein says: “This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy. There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 243]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, Christopher Kelley, Jack Beermann, Bruce Fein, David Golove, George W. Bush, Phillip Cooper, Steven Calabresi

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements, Government Acting in Secret

The Board of Governors of the American Bar Association (ABA) votes unanimously to investigate whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see April 30, 2006 and September 2007). ABA president Michael Greco, who served with former Republican govenor William Weld (R-MA), appoints a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of legal experts, including former government officials, legal scholars, and retired FBI Director William Sessions, to carry out the inquiry. The ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine will work for two months on a report (see July 23, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 244-245]

Entity Tags: Michael Greco, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, American Bar Association, George W. Bush, William Weld, William S. Sessions

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Other Legal Changes, Signing Statements

Inspired in part by the American Bar Association’s upcoming task force report on President Bush’s use of signing statements to ignore the law (see July 23, 2006), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) holds a hearing on signing statements. Specter asks the White House to send either Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Steven Bradbury, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, to testify to the use of the statements. Instead, in what some observers feel is a calculated snub, the White House sends Michelle Boardman, a low-ranking Justice Department deputy. Boardman refuses to answer questions about the use of signing statements by Bush, and instead argues that Bush has shown respect to Congress by using signing statements to indicate his refusal to comply with legislation rather than vetoing entire bills. “Respect for the legislative branch is not shown through [making] a veto,” she tells the assembled committee members. “Respect for the legislative branch, when we have a well-crafted bill, the majority of which is constitutional, is shown when the president chooses to construe a particular statement in keeping with the Constitution, as opposed to defeating an entire bill that would serve the nation.” The president has the power and responsibility to ignore any portion of any law passed by Congress when he feels it conflicts with the Constitution, she says, even in cases “where the Supreme Court has yet to rule on an issue, but the president has determined that a statutory law violates the Constitution.” She notes that previous presidents also used signing statements to raise constitutional questions about specific portions of selected legislation. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is unconvinced by Boardman’s arguments. Bush is using signing statements, he says, “to advance a view of executive power that, as far as I can tell, has no bounds. [The White House has] assigned itself the sole responsibility for deciding which laws it will comply with, and in the process has taken upon itself the powers of all three branches of government.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 248-249]

Entity Tags: Michelle Boardman, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, Senate Judiciary Committee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Steven Bradbury, Arlen Specter, Russell D. Feingold

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

The American Bar Association (ABA)‘s Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine issues its final report for its investigation into whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see June 4, 2006).
Bush Violating the Constitution - The report concludes that Bush is violating the Constitution by signing a bill and then issuing a signing statement declaring that he will refuse to obey selected sections of that bill. The president’s own belief that a particular provision of a law is unconstitutional carries no legal weight, and gives him no right to ignore or disobey that provision, the task force finds. The Constitution gives presidents only two options: veto a bill, or sign it and enforce it. “The president’s constitutional duty is to enforce laws he has signed into being, unless and until they are held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” the report reads. “The Constitution is not what the president says it is.”
De Facto Line-Item Veto - Signing statements as used by Bush and earlier presidents (see 1984-1985, August 23, 1985 - December 1985, October 1985, February 6, 1986 and After, and November 1993) are evolving into a kind of back-door line-item veto, which the Constitution does not grant presidents—especially when Congress cannot override it. “A line-item veto is not a constitutionally permissible alternative,” the report reads, “even when the president believes that some provisions of a bill are unconstitutional. A president could easily contrive a constitutional excuse to decline enforcement of any law he deplored, and transform his qualified veto into a monarch-like absolute veto.”
Bringing the Presidency Back into Alignment - Over 150 newspaper editorial boards, columnists, and cartoonists quickly endorse the ABA’s call to end the abuse of signing statements. Some critics of the ABA report say that, in attempting to avoid singling out Bush for criticism, the task force failed to address the root issue behind the signing statements—the unitary executive theory espoused by the administration (see April 30, 1986). Instead of asking that signing statements themselves be ended, some critics say, the Bush administration’s attempts to usurp other branches’ power for the presidency must be curbed. Law professor Laurence Tribe calls the Bush administration “pathological power holders” and “misfits” who are abusing a valid presidential tool. Task force member Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, says the fundamental issue is to bring the presidency back into proper alignment with the other two branches. “It’s not about Bush, it’s about what should be the responsibility of a president,” he says. “We are saying that the president of the United States has an obligation to follow the Constitution and exercise only the authority the Constitution gives him. That’s a central tenet of American conservatism—to constrain the centralization of power.” [American Bar Association, 7/23/2006 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 245-247]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, Bush administration (43), Mickey Edwards, Laurence Tribe, American Bar Association

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress, stung into action by the Bush administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina and particularly the ineptitude of Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA—see Early September 2001), passes a law saying that President Bush must nominate a replacement who has “a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management,” and “not less than five years of executive leadership.” In a signing statement, Bush says that only he, the head of the executive branch, can decide who to appoint to offices. Therefore, he states, he is ignoring the prohibition. [Savage, 2007, pp. 239-240]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

Congress passes a bill that restates an existing ban on government officials opening citizens’ first-class mail without a warrant. The single exception is if authorities suspect a letter or package of containing a bomb. President Bush issues a signing statement asserting the right of the executive branch to open mail without a warrant when “specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.” The statement, if interpreted as legally meaningful, renders Congress’s law impotent, since during the entire warrantless wiretapping controversy the administration has asserted it is authorized by the “law” of the president’s inherent power as commander in chief to intercept phone calls without a judge’s approval, and this power would also apply to opening mail. [Savage, 2007, pp. 238]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Bush administration (43)

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Privacy, Signing Statements

President Bush has abused his prerogative to issue “signing statements” that state the White House’s interpretion of Congressionally passed laws (see Early 2005), according to former White House counsel John Dean and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
History - Signing statements have no weight in law, but presidents have traditionally used them to state their belief that a particular legislative provision is unconstitutional, and on rare occasion (before the current president) to state their refusal to enforce that provision. Since Jimmy Carter’s administration, various Justice Department officials have said presidents can refuse to enforce a particular provision of signed, legally binding legislation. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116] A group of young conservative lawyers in the Reagan administration decided that signing statements were a powerful, and stealthy, way to expand presidential power.
Dean: Bush's Use of Signing Statements 'Extraordinary' - However, Dean says that Bush has used signing statements far more extensively than any president before him. Dean notes that, while presidential signing statements themselves are not illegal or inherently wrong, “[i]t is Bush’s abuse of them that is extraordinary.” Dean writes there has been no concerted effort to find out if Bush is just saying he will not comply with the inordinate number of legislative provisions he has objected to, or if he is refusing to comply with them in practice. If the latter is the case, Dean writes, “he should be impeached immediately… because it would be an extraordinary breach of his oath” of office.
Tribe: Bush's Signing Statements 'Bizarre,' 'Reckless' - Dean cites Tribe, who said in 2006, “[W]hat is new and distressing [about Bush’s use of signing statements] is the bizarre, frighteningly self-serving, and constitutionally reckless character of those views—and the suspicion that the president either intends actually to act on them with some regularity, often in a manner that won’t be publicly visible at the time, or intends them as declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches—declarations that he hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007] Political science professor Christopher Kelley agrees. Kelley, who studied the Bush administration’s use of signing statements, says: “What we haven’t seen until this administration is the sheer number of objections that are being raised on every bill passed through the White House. That is what is staggering. The numbers are well out of the norm from any previous administration.”
Signing Statements Supplanting Vetoes - In another disturbing trend, according to author and reporter Charlie Savage, Bush is using signing statements to supplant the traditional presidential veto. By mid-2007, Bush had vetoed just two bills. In contrast, Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, vetoed 37 bills. George H. W. Bush vetoed 44, and Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Legal experts studying Bush’s signing statements conclude that Bush and his legal team are using signing statements to function almost as line-item vetoes, a power the president does not have. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the Founding Fathers wanted the president to either accept a Congressional bill or reject it entirely, and if Congress overrode the veto, then the president had no other recourse than to follow the new law. But now, Savage writes, “the Bush-Cheney administration had figured out that if a president signed a bill and then instructed the government to consider selected provisions null (see December 30, 2005), he could accomplish much the same thing. Moreover, it was an absolute power because, unlike when there is a regular veto, Congress had no opportunity to override his legal judgments.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 230-231]

Entity Tags: Laurence Tribe, John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Christopher Kelley

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

President Barack Obama orders a review of former President Bush’s signing statements. Bush often used signing statements to instruct administration officials how to implement, or to ignore, Congressional legislation and other laws (see Early 2005, January 13, 2006, and September 2007). Obama has sent memos to numerous federal agencies directing them to review Bush’s signing statements. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says that other presidents have used signing statements to note potential problems and conflicts, and says Obama will continue that practice. But, Gibbs says, Obama will not use signing statements to disregard Congress’s intent in its legislation. [Associated Press, 3/9/2009]

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Robert Gibbs, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Expansion of Presidential Power, Signing Statements

President Obama signs a controversial bill passed by Congress (see December 15, 2011), which gives the president power to order indefinite military detention for anyone deemed an enemy combatant, including US citizens arrested or captured in the United States. Obama had threatened to veto the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on a number of occasions, but once certain restrictions on presidential authority were removed, he became willing to sign it. For instance, the original version of the bill required that persons covered by the bill be held prisoner by the military and prosecuted by military tribunals, if at all. Obama was of the view that by requiring military detention, Congress was intruding on areas under the purview of the executive branch, and in ways that would impede the ability of the executive branch to effectively gather intelligence, fight terrorism, and protect national security. He also believed the bill was unnecessary and potentially risky in order to codify detention authority, and that the president already had authority, via the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and subsequent court rulings, to unilaterally designate persons, including US citizens, as enemy combatants and subject them to indefinite military detention without trial. [White House, 12/31/2011; Salon, 12/15/2012] For the same reasons, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, White House Advisor for Counterterrorism John Brennan, and DOJ National Security Division head Lisa Monaco were also opposed to the mandatory military detention provisions. [ACLU, 12/7/2011] Also, according to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), a sponsor of the NDAA, “[L]anguage which precluded the application of section 1031 [1021 in the final bill] to American citizens was in the bill we originally approved in the Armed Services Committee, and the administration asked us to remove the language which says that US citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section.” [Senate, 11/17/2011] With the bill drafted so that military detention was optional, and an option US citizens were subject to (see December 15, 2011), Obama signaled he would sign it, despite having concerns that it was still unduly restrictive of executive authority, and it unnecessarily codified authority that had been exercised for 10 years and had been upheld by a number of lower court decisions. [White House, 12/17/2011 pdf file] However, in a non-binding signing statement attached to the bill, Obama says he is signing the bill “despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” Obama does not specify what his reservations are, but promises: “[M]y administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.” [White House, 12/31/2011]
Controversy over Indefinite Detention Provisions - Though 86 percent of US senators and almost two-thirds of the House of Representatives voted to pass the NDAA (see December 15, 2011), and the bill is signed by Obama, the military detention measures are opposed by a number of constitutional experts and public interest organizations, and a significant percentage of the general public (see December 22-26, 2011).

Entity Tags: James R. Clapper Jr., Carl Levin, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, US Department of Defense, Leon Panetta, Robert S. Mueller III, John O. Brennan, David Petraeus, Lisa Monaco

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Signing Statements, Detainments Outside US, Detainments in US, Gov't Violations of Prisoner Rights

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