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An Imminent Threat (to the Constitution)

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 24, 2006; 2:10 PM

A blistering report out today from a blue-ribbon legal panel dramatically establishes how President Bush's use of signing statements to assert his right to ignore legislation passed by Congress undermines the rule of law and the constitutional system of separation of powers.

The report, from an American Bar Association task force, goes a long way toward establishing the parameters for what could be a ferocious and consequential debate -- or an unparalleled acquiescence to an executive-branch power grab.

The task force members outline a clear path to the restoration of the traditional balance of powers. But will the Republican-controlled Congress step up to the plate?

And will today's coverage of the report by the traditional media lead to a continued examination of this important story? Or will the press allow what the task force describes as an imminent threat to the Constitution slide back off the national agenda?

Here is the full report . Here is some background on the panel's members . Here is a news release . I wrote at some length about signing statements last month over at NiemanWatchdog.org . Here is Charlie Savage 's seminal Boston Globe piece from April. Here is an archive of signing statements.

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "A panel of legal scholars and lawyers assembled by the American Bar Association is sharply criticizing the use of 'signing statements' by President Bush that assert his right to ignore or not enforce laws passed by Congress.

"In a report to be issued today, the ABA task force said that Bush has lodged more challenges to provisions of laws than all previous presidents combined. . . .

"The report seemed likely to fuel the controversy over signing statements, which Bush has used to challenge laws including a congressional ban on torture, a request for data on the USA Patriot Act, whistle-blower protections and the banning of U.S. troops in fighting rebels in Colombia."

Charlie Savage , the Globe reporter widely credited with bringing the story to national attention, writes today: "President Bush should stop issuing statements claiming the power to bypass parts of laws he has signed, an American Bar Association task force has unanimously concluded in a strongly worded 32-page report that is scheduled to be released today. . . .

"Citing an expansive theory of executive power that is not supported by most legal scholars, the administration has declared that the Constitution puts Bush beyond the reach of Congress in military matters and executive branch operations. . . .

"The Constitution requires the president either to veto a bill in its entirety -- giving Congress a chance to override his decision -- or to sign the bill and enforce all its components as Congress wrote them, they said.

" 'A line-item veto is not a constitutionally permissible alternative, 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,' the panel wrote."


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