Ever since the days of James Monroe, presidents have used signing statements to comment on new laws. Over the nation’s first two centuries, such statements had challenged a total of 600 statutes; the Bush administration alone has challenged 800 statutes. This staggering total, and the way the White House has used them to essentially claim that Congress has no power over its decisions, has alarmed constitutional scholars, lawyers, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Below, a sampling:
Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002
The Law Said: Corporate whistleblowers giving information to government agencies or Congress will be protected from retaliation.
Bush Said: Only whistleblowers who squeal directly to the congressman or a committee that is investigating the relevant issue will be protected. This interpretation, said Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), means the statute only applies to people “who are lucky enough to find the one member of Congress out of 535 who happens to be the chairman of the appropriate committee who also just happens to already be conducting an investigation, even though the problem identified may not have come to light yet.”
Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006
The Law Said: Future FEMA administrators (unlike patronage appointee Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown) must have some background in disaster management and “not less than 5 years of executive leadership and management experience.”
Bush Said: The statute “rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified…to fill the office” and will be ignored.
USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005
The Law Said: The Justice Department’s inspector general must investigate “any improper or illegal use” of expanded powers provided by the act, including the FBI’s use of National Security Letters that force businesses to turn over sensitive customer information.
Bush Said: He’ll withhold any information whose release he deems harmful to “foreign relations, national security, the deliberative processes of the Executive, or the performance of the Executive’s constitutional duties”—in other words, any information that might be worth knowing.
Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2006
The Law Said: Detainees in U.S. custody will not be subjected to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Bush Said: The administration will use whatever interrogation tactics it sees fit.
Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2002
The Law Said: Congress will be briefed before launching a “special access” (read: “black”) program along the lines of the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts.
Bush Said: Special-access programs are none of Congress’ business; he’ll inform lawmakers when he chooses, “as a matter of comity.”
Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2004
The Law Said: First-class mail will be protected from warrantless searches.
Bush Said: We don’t need no stinking warrant to open your mail.