Report Fuels Debate on Signing Statements

Posted June 18, 2007 at 6:22pm

A new Government Accountability Office report on President Bush’s use of “presidential signing statements” has reignited the heated debate over the White House’s use of the controversial practice to make what amount to changes in how the administration implements various laws passed by Congress.

Although the report does not uncover any new major examples in which the administration has circumvented Congressional intent, it adds yet another potential arrow to Democrats’ investigative quiver over the remaining 18 months of the Bush presidency.

The report, which was requested by Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich), found that of the 19 provisions of signing statements for fiscal 2006 appropriations bills signed by President Bush and examined by the GAO, in at least six cases the affected agencies did not implement the law as Congress had written.

Presidential signing statements are a relatively common practice — former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton used them hundreds of times combined — and can range from simple press releases praising a bill to detailed explanations of how the administration will interpret the law.

However, while most previous presidents have used the statements primarily to praise a law or make general comments on it, the GAO points out that the Congressional Research Service recently found that in 85 percent of the cases Bush has used them it has been to lay out how he interprets the law.

Changes to how the laws in question went into effect ranged from failing to inform Congress of new administrative cost obligations incurred by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to a failure by the Defense Department to provide Congress with separate budget justifications for “contingency operations” in Iraq.

Conyers and Byrd harshly criticized the administration, charging the White House has overstepped its authority.

“The Administration is thumbing its nose at the law. This study calls for an extensive review of these practices, something the Administration has so far refused to do,” Conyers said in a release.

Likewise, Byrd warned that “the White House cannot pick and choose which laws it follows and which it ignores. When a president signs a bill into law, the president signs the entire bill. The Administration cannot be in the business of cherry picking the laws it likes and the laws it doesn’t.”

Outside groups have also leveled new criticism on the administration. Constitution Project President Virginia Sloan argued the report confirms the concerns of many liberal and conservative critics of the administration that the White House has expanded the executive branch’s power beyond its authority.

“The findings of this report should come as no great surprise: when the President tells federal agencies they don’t have to follow the law, they often don’t,” Sloan said in a statement.

The Bush administration has long defended its use of signing statements, and it continued to do so after the GAO report was released.

“We expect to continue to use statements where appropriate, on a bill-by-bill basis,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto told The Associated Press. “The opportunities in this Congress have been limited since we’ve mostly only received bills to name post offices and federal buildings.”

Despite the renewed criticism of the administration, it is still unclear when — or whether — Congress will take action on the matter. For instance, neither the Senate Appropriations Committee nor the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the issue.

However, in his statement Byrd hinted that the issue would not die off easily.

“Too often, the Bush Administration does what it wants, no matter the law. It says what it wants, no matter the facts. We must continue to demand accountability and openness from this White House to counter this power grab,” Byrd said.