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Democrats Guard Legislative Power

Angered over recent media reports that President Bush has effectively disavowed hundreds of laws enacted during his tenure, a handful of House Democrats are now pushing measures to shore up Congress’ legislative authority.

Citing concerns over maintaining a clear Separation of Powers between the legislative and executive branches, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced separate bills shortly before Memorial Day.

Both Democrats, as well as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-authored Frank’s bill, have criticized White House use of “signing statements,” a practice that allows the president to attach an official declaration to newly enacted laws, and one historically used as a legal interpretation for executive branch agencies.

But in those statements, printed in the Federal Record, Bush also has asserted that he holds the power to ignore provisions of law that he believes are in conflict with the Constitution, essentially setting aside at least portions of those laws.

According to a late-April report in the Boston Globe, Bush has issued more than 750 such statements during his six years in office, more than the total number issued by all other commanders in chief in the nation’s history.

On Monday, Frank criticized the use of signing statements and characterized the declarations as “a line-item veto over legislation.”

“Bills are often carefully worked out so they modify provisions and how they operate,” as well as to win support from lawmakers, Frank said. “What’s he’s doing is basically saying, ‘I’ll take the parts that I want, and I’ll disregard the other parts.’”

While it is not possible for Congress to prohibit the president from issuing signing statements — under the Constitution the president is charged with the execution of laws — Frank said he would like to curb the process.

“We would like to try and stop them,” Frank said. “It is not constitutionally possible for [Congress] to prevent them.”

Under the Massachusetts lawmaker’s proposal, any time the president issues a signing statement setting aside a newly enacted law, the White House would be required to notify Congress within 10 days and include an explanation for the decision. In addition, the proposal would require the White House to provide lawmakers with the text of those statements issued before the passage of Frank’s bill.

The measure also would create a series of expedited procedures for Members to introduce a bill or resolution responding to the signing statement. “If [the president] gets what he wants with modifications ... we should then have a chance to take back what he wants,” Frank said.

Members also could request a report from the office of the House general counsel outlining any legal challenges that could be raised by an individual lawmaker.

An alternate proposal introduced by Jackson Lee in late May, the Congressional Lawmaking Authority Protection Act, also aims to reduce the use of signing statements, but it would do so by essentially refusing the proclamations of any authoritative power.

Under the Texas lawmaker’s legislation, federal, state and independent agencies, as well as federal and state courts, would be prohibited from giving any legal significance to signing statements when interpreting federal laws.

In addition, the measure would bar the use of federal funds for signing statements that contradict “the intent of Congress” in enacting the law.

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