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Kennedy on Presidential Signing Statements

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Kennedy on Presidential Signing Statements

Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee

"For far too long, Congress has stood by and watched while President Bush has slowly expanded the unilateral powers of the Presidency at the expense of the rest of the government and the people. From secret military tribunals, to indefinite detentions at Guantanamo, to illegal wiretapping, the President consistently shows a casual disregard for the rights of Congress and the courts to make and interpret the law.

This hearing is one step toward reclaiming our responsibilities, and I commend Senator Specter for his leadership on this issue.

If a President has constitutional problems with a law, he can veto it. That's what George Washington did. His very first veto was based explicitly on constitutional concerns. In fact, until the Civil War, the majority of Presidential vetoes were justified on constitutional or national security grounds.

Given the unprecedented frequency with which this Administration objects to legislation, we'd expect to see constant vetoes. Ronald Reagan issued 78, and George Bush Senior issued 44. Clinton had 37. So how many vetoes has this president issued? Zero. Not a single veto in over five years. Not since Thomas Jefferson has a President gone this long without vetoing a single bill. But this President's issued 750 signing statements - ten times the total number of statements issued over the first 190 years of our nation's history.

This Administration has followed a consistent pattern of objecting to legislation in order to expand its own power and limit the powers of the legislative branch. With these signing statements, the President seems prepared to ignore any act of Congress if he feels it intrudes on intelligence policy, national security, foreign affairs, or law enforcement.

The President doesn't even want to consult with Congress - in signing the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, President Bush categorically rejected clear language in the law that required coordination and consultation with Congress. Claiming his constitutional authority trumped the new law, his signing statement went so far as to say that the President's constitutional authorities "cannot be made" subject to requirements to consult with Congress.

On appropriations bills, the President has made clear that he will use every means possible to rearrange funding to meet the Administration's priorities - completely disregarding the express mandates established by Congress.

The President has also used signing statements to reject affirmative action provisions. In his first term, he issued 15 signing statements indicating that affirmative action provisions would be ignored because the President regards them as a violation of our laws - regardless of what Congress and the courts say.

It's easy to see why the President prefers signing statements over vetoes. There's no chance for Congress to override his interpretations. The statements are often drafted so broadly that it is impossible for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits to challenge them in court.

The President clearly retains the right to decline to execute plainly unconstitutional provisions, but the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of his disregard of legitimately enacted laws is shocking and disturbing. In the view of many legal scholars, President Bush's signing statements demote Congress to the role of presidential advisor.

In recent signing statements, President Bush has refused to comply with provisions of the PATRIOT Act requiring him to report to Congress on the FBI's secret activities. He has declared his intention to ignore express legislative directives that U.S. military advisors in Colombia not engage in combat.

In perhaps his most shocking act of executive arrogance, President Bush stated his intention to disregard a ban by Congress on torture. The ban had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. It cleared the Senate with the backing of 90 Senators. It unequivocally states that the U.S. military may not torture prisoners. Congress clearly has the constitutional power to regulate the military. But this President, who lobbied against the ban, used his signing statement to perform an end-run around Congress.

Signing statements are certainly more effective than vetoes at unilaterally imposing the will of the President on an unsuspecting public. But it is unacceptable for the President to use them to invalidate sweeping portions of duly enacted law. In effect, the President is attempting unilaterally to create a line-item veto for himself.

Despite what President Bush seems to think, the Constitution is not obsolete. In the face of such blatant disregard for the rule of law, Congress can—and must—find a way to curb this gross abuse of executive power. Otherwise, Congressional oversight will continue to be meaningless. Today is a good step forward in making sure that Americans understand the risks of an unchecked Executive Branch."

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