Is Bush Violating the Law?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 12:58 PM

What do President Bush's "signing statements" really signify? When the president asserts his right to ignore legislation passed by Congress --- such as the ban on torture --- is he then acting on that assertion? Or is it just harmless ideological bluster?

When the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage first wrote about Bush's use of these stealthy statements more than a year ago, neither the Washington press corps nor the Republican-controlled Congress expressed any enthusiasm about getting to the bottom of this important Constitutional riddle.

But elections do have consequences.

And as Savage writes in today's Boston Globe: "The new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, said yesterday that he is launching an aggressive investigation into whether the Bush administration has violated any of the laws it claimed a right to ignore in presidential 'signing statements.'

"Bush has claimed that his executive powers allow him to bypass more than 1,100 laws enacted since he took office. But administration officials insist that Bush's signing statements merely question the laws' constitutionality, and do not necessarily mean that the president also authorized his subordinates to violate them.

"Conyers said the president has no power 'to ignore duly enacted laws he has negotiated with Congress and signed.' . . .

"The Michigan Democrat made his remarks at the committee's first oversight hearing since Democrats took control of Congress, which Conyers devoted to signing statements. He called the hearing a kickoff to his plans to use the coming session to probe the administration's 'growing abuse of power.'"

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In written testimony, Assistant Attorney General John P. Elwood said that Bush has never used signing statements as an attempt to 'override' enacted laws.

"But several legal experts and lawmakers contend that some of the president's signing statements have that potential. Some point to a signing statement regarding the McCain amendment, which forbids U.S. torture of prisoners.

"After he signed the amendment into law with fanfare in December 2005, Bush quietly issued a signing statement from his Texas ranch saying that he would view the law 'in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president . . . as commander in chief.'

"He added that his approach 'will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the president . . . of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.'

"The Bush White House maintains that because the nation is in an indefinite war on terror, Bush's constitutional authority as commander in chief has virtually no boundary. His language in the signing statement on the McCain amendment was widely viewed as reserving himself the right to ignore it."

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