Specter Goes to the Mattresses on Signing Statements

Even as he caves to presidential pressure over warrantless domestic surveillance, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is threatening to push through legislation that would allow the Congress to sue the White House over the Bush Administration's unprecedented use of presidential "signing statements" to try to undercut the impact of legislation.

If the White House seems to be stretching the law to violate your rights or mine, well, it seems that the Congress can live with that in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. But if the White House seems to be stretching the law to intrude upon legislative power and authority, well, that's just not going to cut it for the Committee Chairman. He wants to be able to take the White House to court to get the third branch of government to referee the battle between the legislative and executive branches. Not bad for a guy who helps lead a party that otherwise is doing everything it can to diminish the power and the authority of the federal courts.

Of course the Congress should be offended that this White House has made it a habit of attaching signing statements to legislation. The statements are designed not just to provide an "executive branch history"-- much like the "legislative histories" that courts often use to divine Congressional intent when interpreting complex statutes. They are designed to negate and nullifying the legal impact of the legislation to which they are attached. In other words, instead of vetoing legislation, which would then allow the Congress to reshape it, or simply negotiating with the legislative branch to shape legislation that both branches can live with, the White House now has gone the route of defiantly stating its own view of the law; a view that often is at odds with the language of the statute.

The White House says that the signing statements mean nothing, at least officially, which begs the question why this Administration already has issued more signing statements than all other previous administrations combined. Questions like that are why, if nothing else, a good dose of judicial review might create some clarity about an issue that seems a little murky. I would love to see the Supreme Court identify the legal impact of the signing statements and if Sen. Specter's legisislative effort gets us closer to that happy day I am all for it. Stay tuned.

By Andrew Cohen |  July 25, 2006; 1:00 PM ET
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"Mattresses" is, unfortunately, the correct word. Spector will ultimately look for a soft landing. There are too few willing to go to the mat for the Constitution.

Posted by: MC | July 25, 2006 02:38 PM

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