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Signing Statements Strike a Nerve

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 2, 2006; 11:44 AM

There's no doubt that President Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements to flout the will of Congress has fired up policy wonks, constitutional lawyers and other inside-the-Beltway types.

But is this one of those issues that the average voter couldn't care less about?

Well, judging from the recent outpouring of editorials at small- and medium-sized newspapers across the country, there may be something about violating the Constitution that riles up Americans no matter where they live or where they stand on the political spectrum.

Bush's use of signing statements finally -- and briefly -- made the headlines last week, when a bipartisan American Bar Association task force dramatically established how the president's assertion of his right to ignore certain statutes passed by Congress undermines the rule of law and the constitutional system of separation of powers.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) then proposed a bill that would give Congress the ability to challenge those statements in federal court.

For background, see my July 24 column, An Imminent Threat (to the Constitution) and my July 25 column, Congress v. Bush . On June 27, I wrote a piece for NiemanWatchdog.org about the lackluster news coverage of the issue and the many (still) unanswered questions.

But editorial writers around the country know an outrage when they see one.

The Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent : "A Republican senator challenging the president's power is striking a blow for our way of government. . . .

"Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, introduced a bill last week that would allow Congress to sue the president for an unconstitutional use of signing statements. . . .

"His bill would give Congress -- representing our interests -- the chance to challenge any president who tries to subvert legislation on specious grounds.

"This is protection that our government needs."

The Yakima (Wash.) Herald : "Too many times during this administration, we have been concerned about what appears to be an attitude that, 'We'll decide what the rules are; otherwise, they don't apply to us.'

"That's unacceptable."

The Huntsville (Ala.) Times : "There's nothing in the Constitution -- and there shouldn't be -- that says the president gets to pick and choose which laws to obey. When he took his oath, Bush swore to enforce all of them.

"If, during a time of national peril, Bush wants extraordinary powers to meet threats, the Constitution says he must go to Congress to try to get them."

Melbourne-based Florida Today : "Suing a president is a grave recourse, but the option has been made necessary by one who believes he's impervious to the law."

The Loveland (Colo.) Reporter-Herald : "The push and pull of the powers of the presidency versus the powers of Congress has gone on through much of our history and will continue in the future. Still, it appears that Specter's proposed legislation is worthy of significant debate. Among other things, it will give students of American government a lot to think about. And if Specter's bill passes, the signing statement from the president that goes along with it could be a doozy."

The Reading (Pa.) Eagle : "Under the pretext of protecting the country against terrorism, Bush has tried to set himself above Congress and the courts.

"Yes, the threat of terrorism is real, but the country is not even remotely in a state of panic that would warrant placing that kind of power in the president.

"Whether Bush wants to admit it or not, this is still a representative democracy, and the policy of the separation of powers is still intact."

The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader : "Congress has allowed Bush to get out of hand. After the 9/11 tragedies, lawmakers from both parties gave the executive branch too much authority and too little scrutiny. . . .

"Specter's bill is one step in restoring the balance of powers that is the foundation of our democracy."

The Buffalo News : "President Bush has some peculiar ideas about what it means to be the chief executive of a democracy built upon the concept of checks and balances. . . .

"There is no practical way other than political pressure to force Bush to abide fully by the laws he is signing. Americans can apply that pressure as mid-term elections approach. So can an increasingly frustrated Congress. Here's hoping they do."

The Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer : "We find Bush's proclivity for signing statements particularly ironic in light of his oft-declared disdain for 'activist judges' who he says go beyond their constitutional duties by reinterpreting laws written by Congress."

The Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News : "The president's constitutional duty is to enforce laws he has signed into being,' said the report.

"That simple truth would seem to be self-evident. That an ABA report had to be written to remind the White House of that truth is a shameful commentary on the administration. "

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier : "The sheer numbers of signing statements give the impression of a well thought-out strategy within the administration in its quest to extend executive power.

"This president should not be allowed to set that precedent. Nor should any that follow."

And the Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle : "Like a kid who makes a deal and holds his fingers crossed behind his back to signify he doesn't really mean it, President Bush seems to believe that if he issues a statement upon signing a law then the law doesn't apply as it was written. . . .

"It may be that he only way for Congress to reassert its power is by playing the game the way the president does. From here on all bills heading to the president's desk should have be accompanied by a 'no backsies' amendment, which nullify all presidential 'crossies.' Or perhaps an even better check on the president would be a 'jinx, doublejinx' clause in which he can't speak until after he signs a bill. Let's just hope the president doesn't resort to cupping his ears, shutting his eyes and implementing the 'I can't hear you, I can't hear you, la-la-la-la' tactic."

Cartoon Watch

Political cartoonists, not surprisingly, are up in arms, too. Here are Steve Sack ; Signe Wilkinson ; Ted Rall ; Ben Sargent ; and Tom Toles .

And the satirical Onion weighs in with this faux-news story: "In a decisive 1--0 decision Monday, President Bush voted to grant the president the constitutional power to grant himself additional powers."

Still Blocking a Cease-Fire in Lebanon

Jim Rutenberg and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "The United States firmly reiterated its position on Tuesday that there can be no cease-fire in the Middle East until there is a solid plan in place to disarm Hezbollah. . . .

"Ms. Rice had seemed to be ready to hasten the diplomatic effort to end the crisis as she prepared to leave Jerusalem for home on Monday, saying a solution was possible this week. But after she had dinner at the White House with Mr. Bush on Monday night, and France effectively postponed a United Nations session to work out the details of a international peacekeeping force, the administration strongly reiterated its message: a cease-fire will not be hastened without a plan to make it a lasting one."

By contrast, Elaine Sciolino and Dan Bilefsky write in the New York Times: "The 25 countries of the European Union called Tuesday for an immediate end to the fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, hoping to create the momentum for a political solution and the deployment of an international military force to secure the peace. . . .

"European Union countries have to be reckoned with, because some of them, and not the United States, have pledged in principle to put troops on the ground as part of an international force if conditions are right. . . .

"'Bush can say, "Boys, let's go," ' said one European participant. 'The only problem is that the boys are other countries' boys.'"

White House spokesman Tony Snow asked at yesterday's press briefing if Bush was still against an immediate cease-fire, replied with a showpiece of passive construction: "An immediate cease-fire is something that at this point doesn't seem to be in the cards. Neither side is headed that way."

Middle East: The Big Picture

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times about Bush's strong predisposition to support Israel, and how his approach to the region contrasts with his father's.

"The first President Bush came to the Oval Office with long diplomatic experience, strong ties to Arab leaders and a realpolitik view that held the United States should pursue its own strategic interests, not high-minded goals like democracy, even if it meant negotiating with undemocratic governments like Syria and Iran.

"The current President Bush has practically cut off Syria and Iran, overlaying his fight against terrorism with the aim of creating what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls 'a new Middle East.' In allying himself so closely with Israel, he has departed not just from his father's approach but also from those of all his recent predecessors, who saw themselves first and foremost as brokers in the region."

There's also his tendency to think all problems can be solved through the use of force. And even Bush's staunchest international ally has had second thoughts about that approach.

Patrick Wintour writes in the Guardian: "Tony Blair called for a fundamental reappraisal of British and U.S. foreign policy yesterday, admitting that excessive emphasis on military power and failure to address the Palestinian issue had left the west losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

"In a speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, the prime minister admitted 'we are far from persuading those we need to persuade' that Western values were even-handed, fair and just in their application. He said there was no point disguising the damage being done to the cause of peace in the Middle East by the war on the Lebanese border, but suggested that when the war finally ended 'we must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy to defeat those that threaten us'."

Torture Watch

Michael Scherer writes in Salon about how the pilot and Vietnam POW -- a staunch Republican -- who pushed through the War Crimes Act of 1996 is appalled that the Bush administration, facing possible prosecution for war crimes, is devising a legal escape hatch.

"Thanks to his persistent lobbying, Congress passed the War Crimes Act of 1996 with overwhelming bipartisan support. For the first time, U.S. courts were granted authority to convict any foreigner who commits a war crime against an American, or any American who commits a war crime at all. At the time, nobody could have predicted that a decade later a U.S. administration, with the explicit consent of the president and the attorney general, would be accused of systematic war crimes."

Flash forward to today: "To preempt any prosecution, administration officials are now quietly circulating legislation to change the statutory interpretation of the War Crimes Act of 1996. In short, the legislation would make it difficult to prosecute U.S. personnel for the harsh interrogation methods authorized by President Bush and the Justice Department."

Paulson Watch

Reuters reports: "U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson renewed support for a strong dollar on Tuesday but said he has not discussed dollar policy with President George W. Bush.

"'I have not talked with the president about the dollar policy. I've talked with him about a number of things. This is very much my policy,' Paulson said in a Bloomberg television interview on a day when he made his first major speech and gave his first on-the-record interviews as Treasury secretary."

So does this indicate: a) Bush isn't really involved in setting key features of his administration's economic policy; or b) Paulson only thinks he's setting the administration's economic policy.

Fitter, Fatter, Shorter

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "President Bush continues to enjoy robust health but has put on a little weight, the White House said Tuesday after the president's annual physical examination."

Julie Mason writes for the Houston Chronicle: "President Bush lost a quarter-inch in height and gained nearly 5 pounds in the past year -- but he lowered his cholesterol and is still in better shape than most men his age, according to his doctors."

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts ask in The Washington Post: "Is President Bush a seesaw dieter? He gained six pounds in the year and a half before the 2004 elections, then lost eight pounds by last summer -- only to regain five pounds since then, according to the results of his annual physical yesterday. He now weighs in at 196.

"'Too many birthday cakes,' explained POTUS, who celebrated his 60th last month, as he exited National Naval Medical Center. During six hours of tests, doctors also burned a tiny precancerous lesion off his left arm -- nothing serious, they said -- and gave him the old scold about sunscreen."

According to the medical report released by the White House, Bush hasn't had a single sick day since his last physical.

And he exercises six times a week. "Workouts include bicycling (15-20 miles, 15-18mph), treadmill (low impact 'hill-work'), elliptical trainer, free weight resistance training, and stretching."

My question: How does a guy who exercises that much put on that much weight? He must really be packing the food away.

Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron marvels on the Huffington Post Web site about "how it's possible for anyone under these conditions to have a resting heart rate of 46 beats per minute."

The Wounded

While at the National Naval Medical Center for his physical yesterday, Bush visited with some wounded Marines, sailors and soldiers there. Here's a White House photo .

I'm guessing he didn't ask them how they felt about the war.

Brian MacQuarrie writes in the Boston Globe about one soldier Bush visited recently at another military hospital: "President Bush came and sat by the side of Sergeant Brian Fountaine, a 24-year-old tank commander from Dorchester, a gung-ho soldier who had lobbied to be deployed a second time. Now Fountaine was among the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, his legs amputated below the knees after an explosion June 8 ripped apart the Humvee in which he was riding.

"The president chatted about the sergeant's beloved Red Sox, but made no reference to the war, the soldier said.

"If the topic had come up, the president might not have liked what Fountaine had on his mind. In a dramatic change of heart, Fountaine now considers the war a military quagmire in which American soldiers are caught in a deadly vise between irreconcilable enemies."

Briefing Room Nostalgia

Argetsinger and Roberts write in The Post: "Today is the last day reporters will meet in the West Wing's ratty old press room, so a celebration is in order: Former White House press secretaries Jim Brady, Marlin Fitzwater, Jody Powell, Ron Nessen, Joe Lockhart and Dee Dee Myers will join Tony Snow at the last briefing this afternoon. The press corps is decamping across the street to Jackson Place until long-overdue renovations -- state-of-the-art technology and wider seats -- and rat extermination are completed next May."

Cindy Sheehan Watch

Ann Compton blogs for ABC News about how anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan is moving into Crawford -- just in time for Bush's vacation.

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