Major media outlets have largely ignored reports by The Boston Globe's Charles Savage documenting President Bush's apparent willingness to disregard congressional authority through the use of "signing statements" asserting "that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution." The media have also ignored the response by Democrats to Savage's reports.
On April 30, Boston Globe staff writer Charlie Savage reported that "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office" by attaching "signing statements" to bills passed by Congress. According to Savage, Bush's signing statements assert "that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution," and Bush is using this authority "[f]ar more than any predecessor." Savage also reported that Bush has filed signing statements to bills indicating that "he can ignore any act of Congress that seeks to regulate the military," that he can bypass "requirements to give information about government activity to congressional oversight committees," and that he can defy Supreme Court rulings.
On May 2, Savage reported that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) "blasted President Bush yesterday for having claimed he has the authority to defy more than 750 statutes enacted since he took office, saying that the president's legal theories are wrong and that he must obey the law.
Savage's April 30 and May 2 articles are follow-ups to his March 24 Globe article, which reported that Bush, after signing the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act on March 9 amid much fanfare, quietly filed a signing statement explaining "that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers." The Globe also published an article by Savage on March 28, which reported that in response to Bush's Patriot Act signing statement, Reps. Jane Harman (D-CA) and John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) -- the ranking Democrats on the House intelligence and judiciary committees, respectively -- "sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking that Bush follow the law." Harman's and Conyers's letter followed a March 15 statement by Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said of Bush's Patriot Act signing statement: "This President appears to believe that he can pick and choose which laws to obey and need never submit to congressional oversight."
The major media largely ignored Savage's March 24 and 28 articles. Savage's latest reports give further insight into Bush's reportedly unprecedented use of signing statements and indicate that opposition to Bush's actions is growing among prominent Democrats in Congress. Nevertheless, the mainstream media have continued to collectively ignore Savage's reporting, as well as the Democratic response.
Savage reported on March 24:
When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.
The bill contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. The provisions require Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations. Under the law, the administration would have to provide the information to Congress by certain dates.
Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it "a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people." But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a "signing statement," an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.
In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would "impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties."
Past presidents occasionally used such signing statements to describe their interpretations of laws, but Bush has expanded the practice. He has also been more assertive in claiming the authority to override provisions he thinks intrude on his power, legal scholars said.
Bush's expansive claims of the power to bypass laws have provoked increased grumbling in Congress. Members of both parties have pointed out that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to write the laws and the executive branch the duty to "faithfully execute" them.
Except for a short March 24 United Press International article, some scattered editorials and opinion columns, and brief mentions in an April 1 San Francisco Chronicle article and an April 23 Washington Post article, Savage's reporting on Bush's "signing statements" and the Democratic response were ignored by major newspapers and wire services. And aside from Keith Olbermann, who reported on the Globe article on the March 24 edition of MSNBC's Countdown, the cable and broadcast news networks ignored the "signing statements" as well.
Savage's April 30 article offered further insight into Bush's use of "signing statements":
President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.
Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.
Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ''to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ''execute" a law he believes is unconstitutional.
For the first five years of Bush's presidency, his legal claims attracted little attention in Congress or the media. Then, twice in recent months, Bush drew scrutiny after challenging new laws: a torture ban and a requirement that he give detailed reports to Congress about how he is using the Patriot Act.
Bush administration spokesmen declined to make White House or Justice Department attorneys available to discuss any of Bush's challenges to the laws he has signed.
Instead, they referred a Globe reporter to their response to questions about Bush's position that he could ignore provisions of the Patriot Act. They said at the time that Bush was following a practice that has ''been used for several administrations" and that ''the president will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution."
But the words ''in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution" are the catch, legal scholars say, because Bush is according himself the ultimate interpretation of the Constitution. And he is quietly exercising that authority to a degree that is unprecedented in US history.
Bush is the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, giving Congress no chance to override his judgments. Instead, he has signed every bill that reached his desk, often inviting the legislation's sponsors to signing ceremonies at which he lavishes praise upon their work.
Then, after the media and the lawmakers have left the White House, Bush quietly files ''signing statements" -- official documents in which a president lays out his legal interpretation of a bill for the federal bureaucracy to follow when implementing the new law. The statements are recorded in the federal register.
Reagan's successors continued this practice. George H.W. Bush challenged 232 statutes over four years in office, and Bill Clinton objected to 140 laws over his eight years, according to Kelley, the Miami University of Ohio professor.
Many of the challenges involved longstanding legal ambiguities and points of conflict between the president and Congress.
Throughout the past two decades, for example, each president -- including the current one -- has objected to provisions requiring him to get permission from a congressional committee before taking action. The Supreme Court made clear in 1983 that only the full Congress can direct the executive branch to do things, but lawmakers have continued writing laws giving congressional committees such a role.
Still, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton used the presidential veto instead of the signing statement if they had a serious problem with a bill, giving Congress a chance to override their decisions.
But the current President Bush has abandoned the veto entirely, as well as any semblance of the political caution that Alito counseled back in 1986. In just five years, Bush has challenged more than 750 new laws, by far a record for any president, while becoming the first president since Thomas Jefferson to stay so long in office without issuing a veto.
According to a Nexis search, the media has yet to acknowledge Savage's latest findings or the response from the Democratic senators (as of this posting), with two exceptions: journalist Eric Umansky, who excerpted Savage's April 30 article in his May 1 "Today's Papers" column for the online magazine Slate; and MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who interviewed Savage on the May 1 edition of Countdown. Also, National Journal's Hotline weblog referenced Savage's April 30 article in a May 1 post.