As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Signing Statement Expiration Dates

We've all been concerned about President Bush's disrespect of the Constitution and the separation of powers, but one interesting sidelight to it all is that, at least on the question of signing statements, the long-term effects are less severe than realized, at least in the specific sense.

Critics say the statements, which went mostly unnoticed [3] until the middle of Bush's second term, usurp Congress' constitutional right to make laws and violate the separation of powers. But hope is just around the corner for the signing statement opponents.

"They will mean nothing" once Bush leaves office, said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and member of an American Bar Association task force that studied, and ultimately condemned [4] (PDF), the practice of using signing statements to reject statutes. Presidents should veto laws they believe are unconstitutional, the task force said.

Though the statements aren't legally binding, they send the message to executive branch agencies that they may ignore certain laws, usually on the contention that they impinge on the president's constitutional authority. Agencies that have adopted such presidential advice as policy could still be affected when President-elect Barack Obama's appointees inherit the "status quo," Saltzburg said.

Neal Sonnett, a Miami lawyer who led the Bar Association task force, suggested that Obama make a general statement withdrawing the Bush signing statements to assure a clean break. But Sonnett and others believe the most conspicuous statements -- and their effects -- will be obvious to the newcomers.

Of course, the problem with signing statements wasn't really that they would settle law, but that they would embolden the executive to follow Bush in determining which parts of a statute to abide by and which to ignore. That the specific damage done washes away is a good thing, but the precedent remains. President-elect Obama would do well to completely repudiate the practice, to at least try and establish a new precedent.

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