President Says He is Just Practicing Penmanship

Just as the Senate Judiciary Committee was holding a mini-hearing today on the proliferation of the use of presidential "signing statements" to undercut legislation, a White House spokesman was downplaying the significance of the Administration's tactic. The President is just expressing his "reservations" about the legislation he is signing into law," Tony Snow told reporters today, and the statements really don't have any "teeth." What a load of hooey.

Administration attorneys have not been wasting the President's time on approximately 750 occasions by having him sign a statement that has no effect. On the contrary, the statements are carefully designed to shape the course of the legislation once it has been signed into law. They reflect the official view of the White House, especially when that view contradicts the view of lawmakers, and thereby signals officials at administrative agencies as well as friendly judges that the law is suspect and can be attacked, politically or legally or both. There is nothing "toothless" about that.

As for the hearings, they began Tuesday with a few sparks. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the Judiciary Committee Chairman, suggested that the Congress might try to create disincentives for the White House to include signing statements. "We may figure out a way to tie it to the confirmation process or budgetary matters," Specter reportedly said. Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a Committee member who has made a name for himself as an enemy of the federal courts, said Tuesday (according to the AP) that "there's less here than meets the eye... The president is entitled to express his opinion." A Justice Department lawyer even suggested that the President needed to issue more signing statements because of 9/11 and the Congressional response to the attacks. You get the idea.

I'll be interested to see how today's developments-- the hearing and the White House reaction to it-- play on the evening news shows and in tomorrow's papers. The early wire stories about "signing statements" mostly led with Snow's denial that they are part of a White House ploy to engage in civil disobediance-- which means that early on in this news cycle it is the White House, and not the Congress, that is winning the spin battle. Journalists face special challenges in tackling this story. We'll see if they can turn those challenges into opportunity and then into success. Because the story of signing statements is one that too many Americans haven't heard.

By Andrew Cohen |  June 27, 2006; 1:47 PM ET
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So according to Tony Snow George W's signing statements are toothless, suggesting that this gumming of Congress is like a dog's barking being worse than its bite?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | June 27, 2006 04:45 PM

Naw, it's no big deal. Why do we need laws anyway, right? We have a king now. whatever he says is law!

Posted by: Drindl | June 27, 2006 05:16 PM

Let's see if I can understand this. You can have an opinion but the president can't. Is that it?

Posted by: Phil Carter | June 27, 2006 05:20 PM

Article II of the Constitution states that the president "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Signing statements, if they contradict the 'Laws,' show that the President isn't doing the job we elected him to do.

Posted by: Judge C. Crater | June 27, 2006 05:29 PM

Phil Carter,

You don't understand it. What he's saying is that he doesn't get to change the law to suit his whims and neither should the President.

Posted by: Cujo359 | June 27, 2006 05:49 PM

The signing statements drive in the present administration needs a bit of deconstruction, as in whodunnit and what are they, whoever they are, trying to accomplish. Obviously, Dubya isn't the force behind this, though he might be dimly sympathetic.

Are we talking about the VPOTUS and the SECDEF, a larger circle of neocons, or what?

And what is the desired end state -- an omnipotent chief executive and its helpers? If so, why? Cui bono?

Again, some deconstruction and analysis of just what's going on and where it's going might be in order.

Posted by: Texican | June 27, 2006 06:48 PM

God only knows where this all may be going...... but our constitution is being trashed, and that strikes me as 'not a good thing'.

I find the signing order on the McCain anti-torture ammendment particularly bad. I mentioned it when I visited McCain's DC office last month, and all the receptionist did was shake her head yes when I told her that Bush's signing statement made the whole McCain ammendment moot.

So, the violations of the Geneva conventions will continue..... maybe in your home town next.


Posted by: Susan | June 27, 2006 07:28 PM

So, if I understand this correctly, the president and I are both entitled to an opinion, but his reshapes legislation in ways not necessarily intended by lawmakers while mine dies by morning in the blog-o-sphere.

It's good to be king-Tony

Posted by: tony carton | June 27, 2006 08:12 PM

Wonder what the results would be if someone would lock up Cheney and Rove for a few days before one of these signings.

Posted by: Jef with 1 f | June 28, 2006 12:22 AM

I disagree with those who claim the Constitution of the United States is being trashed. Most Americans do not realize that the closest we've come to a dictatorship in this country was during the years following the Civil War when the Congress of the United States passed laws giving itself broad powers and protection. The laws stood until brought up for review by our Judicial branch... of course to be brought for review, someone had to be arrested, charged, then appeal, and with strong penalties, who wanted to be the guinea pig...

Our system of government will always be a test of wills between the three branches. I believe the strength of our Constitution is evident in the fact that we have a strong healthy country that has stood for over 230 years, and will continue to stand for the foreseable future.

Do I like the signing statements... as the President's opinion, yes. He has free speech as the rest of us do. Should they be used to circumvent law passed by Congress? No. The proper place to deal with this is in the Judicial branch, or with new legislation from Congress.

Posted by: Michael D | June 28, 2006 01:15 AM

Michael, it's not really his opinion he's expressing in these statements. It's him agreeing to enforce the laws as he sees fit.

Now we all know why he's never vetoed anything. He has more power by not doing so.

There was a great discussion about this topic a couple months back over at Radio Open Source:

Posted by: Mason | June 28, 2006 03:01 AM

I don't think that Tony Snow knows what he's talking about here. Nevertheless, the use of signing statements is niether unprecedented nor unusual. They were in fact specifically found to be constitutional by President Clinton's Department of Justice, through its Office of Legal Counsel (and left-winger Walter Dellinger). See

Of course, the fact that signing statements were used by many other Presidents, and were specifically found to be OK by President Clinton's administration, merely indicates that all of this is simple partisan politics by left-wing extremists like Andrew Cohen. Anybody who was interested in a non-partisan analysis of the law would know that. Just another example of an ostensibly non-partisan WaPo blogger working for the interests of the Democrat Party...

Posted by: Joe S. | June 28, 2006 11:09 AM

The President to date, has not vetoed ANY bill put before him. Presidential Signing Statements are extra-constitutional, and in my view while perhaps not illegal, they are certainly meaningless.

The responsibility of the Executive Branch is to enforce the laws passed by Congress. The President has the unique ability to veto a bill that he believes is not in the best interests of the country.

Congress has the option of getting a veto-proof level of support for a bill that they strongly believe should be a law.

The framers of the Constitution and the founders of our country did not intend for any Executive to have the leeway to pick and choose which bills he would support, and in which ways, etc.

Again, in my opinion, the Presidential Signing Statements are yet another abdication of the President's Constitutionally-described duties.

You know, like honoring treaties his predecessors signed, etc.

- PT

Posted by: practical tactical | June 28, 2006 11:15 AM

So it is OK for the Supreme Court to announce legal meanings but not OK for the President to announce an enforcement strategy?

And exactly what do you think regulations are? They are executive invented rules that are applied because Congress passes laws with open scope. Agencies hold hearings, receive input and announce an interpretation of Congressional meaning and apply new rules. They then use those rules in internal hearings that determine the penalties applied. These rules are executive made laws.

I suppose that the Supreme Court could just announce decisions, "this law is unconstitutional" without an associated opinion. But note the use of the term opinion, it is not the same as the Constitution or a replacement for the law it is an opinion about them.

The President can apply the laws and direct agencies to interpret laws without announcing an interpretation at signing. I do not know the history or use of these signings, so I don't know their force in law.

While I am not a fan of these pronouncements, I do not see how they cause harm. If the President does not enforce the laws, Congress may change them to bend to their view. If he does not apply the law properly the judiciary can force him to apply them.

Blogs should not just be blather opinion. Andrew would do well to explain how these pronouncements have been used in the past, how Courts and Prsidents have applied them, and how their current use is different. Or even whether the cuurent use is different of just more frequent.

I believe there is enough balance in the Constitution and our legal system to handle this and I have seen no evidence offered that suggests otherwise.

Posted by: Constitutionalist | June 28, 2006 12:03 PM

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