By BOB EGELKO
San Francisco Chronicle
May 17, 2006
In March, Bush signed a renewal of search and surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act and said at a public ceremony that civil liberties would be protected by a series of new amendments. Then he quietly inserted another statement in the Federal Register that virtually nullified one of those amendments, a requirement that the administration report to Congress on the FBI's use of its powers under the Patriot Act to seize library, bookstore and business records.
Civics textbooks say presidents have two choices when Congress passes a bill that's not completely to their liking: They can sign it into law, or they can veto it and let Congress try to override them.
Bush, far more than any of his predecessors, is resorting to a third option: signing a bill while reserving the right to disregard any part of it that he considers an infringement on his executive authority or constitutional powers.
In more than five years in office, the president has never vetoed a bill. But while approving new laws, he has routinely issued signing statements interpreting the legislation in ways that amount to partial vetoes of provisions to which he objects.
White House spokesman Blair Jones insisted that Bush is not trying to undermine the lawmaking authority of Congress, and noted that many past presidents have issued statements on the meaning of bills they sign.
Presidential scholars, in fact, trace signing statements back to the early 19th century. But for much of the nation's history, they have been little more than bureaucratic memos instructing subordinates on the implementation of new laws. Bush has transformed them into declarations of executive supremacy.
According to Christopher Kelley, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio who has studied presidential powers, Bush issued 505 statements in his first term objecting to portions of new laws on constitutional grounds. Documents available at the White House Web site indicate that the number since Bush took office now exceeds 700.
By comparison, Kelley said, President Ronald Reagan, the first to use signing statements as an instrument of presidential power, issued 71 such statements in two terms; President George Bush issued 146 in one term; and President Bill Clinton issued 105 in two terms.
The numbers tell only part of the story, said Phillip Cooper, a professor of government administration at Portland State University who has studied signing statements and other executive actions.
"This administration has been much more systematic and much broader in scope" in signing statements, Cooper said, on its "path to expand presidential powers at the expense of Congress and the courts."
He said Bush has pursued that goal with a variety of presidential directives and in the electronic surveillance he ordered after Sept. 11, 2001, of international contacts between Americans and alleged terror suspects, without the court warrants required by a 1978 law. When the surveillance program was disclosed by the New York Times in December, the administration said Bush's constitutional powers overrode any congressional authority to require warrants.
Among the most common targets of Bush's signing statements have been laws requiring his administration to disclose information, issue reports, appoint officials with specified qualifications, or consult with Congress on the implementation of a law. Bush has regularly reinterpreted these mandates as "advisory" measures that he is free to ignore.
Other statements have scuttled affirmative action programs, rejected congressional criteria for spending federal money, and declared that Bush would follow laws affecting international affairs only to the extent that they respected "the constitutional authority of the president to conduct the nation's foreign relations."
A rare congressional reaction came from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., author of the Patriot Act amendments requiring the Justice Department to report to Congress on the FBI's use of its powers to search and seize records.
After learning in March that Bush had asserted authority to withhold the information, Leahy said the president "appears to believe that he can pick and choose which laws to obey and need never submit to congressional oversight." He accused Bush of making "a radical effort to reshape the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law."
In response, Jones, the White House spokesman, said Bush's bill-signing statements simply affirm that he "will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution. That's the oath he took and the one he keeps."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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