Specter Pushes Bill to Rein In Presidential Signing Statements

Posted July 3, 2007 at 9:32am

Frustrated by the Bush administration’s continued use of presidential signing statements to challenge or ignore provisions of Congressionally approved legislation, Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has reintroduced legislation to rein in President Bush’s ability to use the tactic.

Specter, who has long been a critic of Bush’s use of signing statements, quietly introduced his Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2007 on Friday.

“The president cannot use a signing statement to rewrite the words of a statute nor can he use a signing statement to selectively nullify those provisions he does not like,” Specter said in a floor statement.

“The Constitution grants the president a specific, narrowly defined role in enacting legislation. … The Constitution provides that when a bill is presented to the president, he may either sign it or veto it with his objections. He may also choose to do nothing, thus rendering a so-called pocket veto. The president, however, cannot veto part of a bill, he cannot veto certain provisions he does not like.”

According to Specter, the bill would take two significant steps to end Bush’s use of signing statements. First, it would prevent the president from “issuing a signing statement that alters the meaning of a statute by instructing federal and state courts not to rely on presidential signing statements in interpreting a statute.”

Additionally, it would give Congress significant new standing in any court case involving an interpretation of federal law laid out in an existing signing statement. Under the law, Congress would have the ability to file an amicus brief and present oral arguments on how the law should be read, and would instruct courts that “if Congress passes a joint resolution declaring its view of the correct interpretation of the statute, the court must admit that resolution into the case record.”

Though signing statements have been used by past presidents, the issue returned to prominence in mid-June, when the Government Accountability Office released a study of the bills on which Bush has issued signing statements, finding several examples where the administration did not execute the laws as Congress intended.

While noting that signing statements are not a new phenomena, Specter points out that Bush has used them far more than other recent presidents and has used them to circumvent high-profile pieces of legislation. For instance, Bush used a signing statement to essentially reinterpret the “McCain Amendment” on torture — a provision of federal law authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) banning torture following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

“This is a finely structured constitutional procedure that goes straight to the heart of our system of check and balances,” Specter said. “Any action by the president that circumvents this finely structured procedure is an unconstitutional attempt to usurp legislative authority. If the president is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our framers.”