Bush's Challenges of Laws He Signed Is Criticized

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A bipartisan group of senators and scholars denounced President Bush yesterday for using scores of "signing statements" to reserve the right to ignore or reinterpret provisions of measures that he has signed into law.

Bush's statements have challenged, for instance, a congressional ban on torture, a request for data on the administration of the USA Patriot Act and even a legislative demand for suggestions on the digital mapping of coastal resources.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing marked the latest effort by Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and panel Democrats to reclaim authority that they say the president has usurped as he has expanded the power of the executive branch. It came on the same day Bush gave a speech pushing for a line-item veto that would allow him to strike spending and tax provisions from legislation without vetoing the bill.

Other presidents have used signing statements to clarify their interpretation of laws, but no president has used such statements instead of ever using the veto authority spelled out in the Constitution, said Harvard University law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who is serving on a new American Bar Association task force examining Bush's signing statements. Bush has never used his veto power in his presidency.

"There is a sense that the president has taken the signing statements far beyond the customary purviews," Specter told the administration's representative, Michelle E. Boardman, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. "There's a real issue here as to whether the president may, in effect, cherry-pick the provisions he likes and exclude the ones he doesn't like."

Democrats were more blunt, blasting such statements, which are estimated to number more than 750 on 110 laws -- more than all the statements issued by other presidents.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat, calling the practice "a grave threat to our constitutional system of checks and balances."

Specter has been more aggressive than any other Republican in challenging Bush's expanding authority. He has pushed the president to reshape his warrantless wiretapping efforts to comply with existing law; threatened to summon telecommunications executives who have given the government access to customer phone records; and challenged the White House's legal arguments for indefinite detentions at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But yesterday, Judiciary Committee members appealed to their fellow lawmakers, who Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said have been "complicit as so many of our precious rights under the Constitution have been ceded away."

Boardman countered that presidents since James Monroe have issued statements of interpretation to accompany laws, and that every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has issued statements reserving the right not to execute sections of laws that may contradict the Constitution. By her accounting, Bush has issued such statements on 110 laws, compared with 80 from Bill Clinton, as many as 105 from Ronald Reagan and 147 from George H.W. Bush in a single term. But President Bush issued multiple statements on many of those laws for a total of 750, and it is unclear how many statements the other presidents issued.

"Even if there has been a modest increase, let me just suggest that it be viewed in light of current events and Congress's response to those events," she said. "The significance of legislation affecting national security has increased markedly since September 11."

The statements related to national security have caused the most controversy.

Last year, after months of difficult negotiations, Bush withdrew a veto threat and signed a defense policy bill that included a provision by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) banning cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners at U.S. detention centers. But Bush's signing statement on Dec. 30, 2005, reserved the right to waive the torture ban if he concluded that some harsh interrogation techniques could advance anti-terrorism efforts.

This year, after Congress reached a hard-fought agreement to extend the USA Patriot Act, expanding the power of federal law enforcement, the president questioned a provision calling for the administration to furnish Congress with detailed audits on the issuance of secret business-record searches and "national security letters."

"He's crossing his fingers behind his back," Leahy said.

White House officials and their allies tried to reassure lawmakers that they have nothing to fear from such statements.

"There's this notion that the president is committing acts of civil disobedience, and he's not," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

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