Congress Watches Its Power Erode
In these days of instant information, I expected to see some transcripts of today's hearings, but maybe that's pushing the envelope just a bit too much. I suppose we'll have to wait until tomorrow. Early on this morning, I heard Arlen Specter make a point about Bush's use of signing statements that I hadn't thought of and haven't seen made anywhere else. I'd wanted to quote him but will have to paraphrase, instead.
After nearly five years in office, George Bush has never issued a veto. And with a signing statement, he doesn't have to. He can sign a bill, express any reservations he has, and let it be known (implicitly but effectively) what parts of the bill he'll enforce and what parts he won't. Let's take the recent torture amendment as an example. Bush made it clear that, although the law he just signed prohibits torture under any circumstance, he'd continue to allow torture whenever he felt it necessary. Had he simply vetoed the bill, Congress could've taken up the matter and voted to override, proclaiming that their word is law. But this way, the President has conveyed his support of the torture ban while expressing his willingness to set it aside. Congress is not going to pass another bill to say, "Oh no, you won't." And even if they did, Bush could just sign that one, as well, all the while issuing a signing statement to the effect of, "Oh yes, I will." Signing statements effectively castrate Congress and leave them impotent. So what's Congress going to do about it?
UPDATE: The Washington Post has a transcript. Here's Specter's actual quote:
In the memorandum you wrote back on February 5th, 1986, about the president's power to put a signing statement on to influence interpretation of the legislation, you wrote this: "Since the president's approval is just as important as that of the House or Senate, it seems to follow that the president's understanding of the bill should be just as important as that of Congress."
Is that really true when you say the president's views are as important as Congress?
The president can express his views by a veto, and then gives Congress the option of overriding a veto, which Congress does not have if the president makes a signing declaration and seeks to avoid the terms of the statute.
And we have the authority from the Supreme Court that the president cannot impound funds, can't pick and choose on an appropriation. We have a line-item veto case, where the president cannot strike a provision even when authorized by Congress.
Alito's answer was just one of many times he essentially said, "What I wrote in the past has nothing whatsoever to do with anything I think today."