Judiciary to Probe Signing Statements
Asserting that President Bush’s frequent use of “signing statements” to interpret federal laws have allowed the executive branch to effectively thwart Congressional intent, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said Wednesday that his panel will launch a formal investigation into the practice.
The Michigan lawmaker said the investigation would include both Democratic and Republican staff and will focus on the approximately 150 signing statements issued by Bush, which the American Bar Association estimates have affected more than 1,100 provisions of federal law.
House Democrats have criticized the use of such statements, arguing that they not only undermine the separation of powers of the legislative and executive branches but also threaten legislative authority.
“All too often, the administration has engaged in these practices under a veil of secrecy. This is a constitutional issue that no self-respecting federal legislature should tolerate,” Conyers said.
He announced the investigation at the outset of the committee’s first oversight hearing of the 110th Congress, which also focused on signing statements.
For the inquiry, Conyers said the committee will seek cooperation from both the Justice Department and the White House to identify every statutory provision that has been the subject of a signing statement.
In addition, the investigation will focus on the consequences of those signing statements, including any related actions taken by the executive branch on laws it determines are unconstitutional.
“For example, if the president claims he is exempt from the McCain amendment ban on torture, I want to know whether and where he has permitted it,” Conyers said, referring to an amendment sponsored last year by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that put restrictions on torture of detainees in U.S. custody.
Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing largely defended the executive branch practice, arguing that federal courts have rarely cited the documents when determining a specific law’s constitutionality.
“Presidential signing statements are a non-issue,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the panel’s ranking member. He later added: “One has the distinct feeling that this is simply a policy debate.”
The Texas lawmaker said in a separate interview that he was unaware of the investigation until the Wednesday hearing, adding that he has yet to make any agreements with the Democratic majority about how the inquiry will go forward.
“If it’s about getting some information, I think we did that at the hearing today,” Smith said.
Although Conyers asserted the investigation would be aggressive, he declined to discuss in a separate interview whether the panel could issue subpoenas should the White House or the Justice Department prove uncooperative.
“To be blunt, we are not going to take no for an answer,” Conyers said at the hearing. “We are a coequal branch of government, and if our system of checks and balances is going to operate, it is imperative that we understand how the executive branch is enforcing — or ignoring — the bills that are signed into law.”
Following the hearing, Conyers said the committee may also seek legislation requiring that Congress receive official notice any time the president issues signing statements. Although the declarations are currently printed in the Federal Register, Conyers said that practice is not sufficient notification.
“Dropping it into the Federal Register, you may as well throw it out the window,” he said.