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.
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