Bush Thumbs Nose at Congress

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 30, 2008; 1:02 PM

It's about as basic as it gets: Congress has the power of the purse. And Section 1222 of the massive defense appropriation bill enacted this week asserts that power. It reads, in its entirety:

"No funds appropriated pursuant to an authorization of appropriations in this Act may be obligated or expended for a purpose as follows:

"(1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq.

"(2) To exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

But in another of his controversial " signing statements," President Bush on Tuesday asserted that Section 1222 -- along with three other sections of the bill -- "purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as Commander in Chief."

Therefore, he wrote: "The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President."

The overall message to Congress was clear: I'm not bound by your laws.

The three other sections Bush reserved the right to ignore are also significant. One mandates the establishment of a commission to investigate waste and fraud in military contracts; another strengthens protections for whistle-blowers working for federal contractors; a third requires the president to explain in writing each time an intelligence agency refuses to respond to a document request from the House and Senate armed services committees.

But it's Bush's cavalier dismissal of the ban on funding for permanent military bases that really speaks volumes -- not just about his view of the role of the legislative branch, but also about his intentions for Iraq.

An overwhelming majority of the American public wants a withdrawal of U.S. troops; the Democrats who control congress, and may take over the White House in a year, are committed to doing just that. But, by keeping open the possibility of permanent military bases, Bush raises suspicions domestically that he is trying to lock the nation's armed forces into a long-term presence -- while risking increased anger in Iraq over what many perceive as a long-term project of imperial domination.

Where's the Coverage?

Looking for a news story about all this in your morning paper? You won't find one in The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal.

Instead, you must turn to the Boston Globe and Charlie Savage, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for being the first -- and for a long time, only -- reporter to write about Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements.

In today's Globe, Savage writes: "President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent US military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill.

"Bush made the assertion in a signing statement that he issued late Monday after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008. In the signing statement, Bush asserted that four sections of the bill unconstitutionally infringe on his powers, and so the executive branch is not bound to obey them."

It's not like Savage was in on a secret. The signing statement was distributed to the press corps, and several Democrats yesterday took to the Senate floor to express their fury. (See below.) From the House side, Savage quotes Speaker Nancy Pelosi as saying: "I reject the notion in his signing statement that he can pick and choose which provisions of this law to execute. . . . His job, under the Constitution, is to faithfully execute the law - every part of it - and I expect him to do just that.'"

Savage also talked to legal specialists who disagreed with the administration's legal theory.

"'Congress clearly has the authority to enact this limitation of the expenditure of funds for permanent bases in Iraq,' said Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor who was the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration. . . .

"Phillip Cooper, a political science professor at Portland State University, noted that Bush's statement does not clearly spell out the basis for any of his challenges. Cooper, who has been a pioneer in studying signing statements, said the vague language itself is a problem.

"'It is very hard for Congress or the American people to figure out what is supposed to happen and what the implications of this are,' Cooper said."

Here are some of the statements from the Senate floor yesterday.

Said Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Congress has a right to expect that the Administration will faithfully implement all of the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 -- not just the ones the President happens to agree with. . . .

"[T]he President vetoed an earlier version of this Act, which contained the same specific provisions that he singled out in his signing statement yesterday. The President did not choose to exercise his veto over these provisions, and as a result they have not changed in any way whatsoever in the version of the bill he chose to sign. With his signature these provisions become the law of the land. Congress and the American people have a right to expect that the Administration will now faithfully carry them out."

Said Sen. Jim Webb, cosponsor of the legislation to establish the commission to investigate military contracts: "[T]he President of the United States -- who has been in charge of the conduct of this war and whose administration has been in charge of executing these contracts, supervising them, making sure that they meet the requirements of fairness in the law -- is now saying that he believes that a legislative body can enact a law that he can choose to ignore because he says it would interfere with his responsibility to supervise a war as Commander-and-Chief.

"I am at a total loss here. I am amazed to see this kind of language employed with respect to this legislation.

"The Commission was put into place with broad bipartisan and bicameral support, with the intention of studying systemic problems. I would think that these are the sorts of problems that this President would want to root out. . . .

"We don't quite know what the Administration intends with this sort of language, but I want all my colleagues to be aware of it and to be aware that it potentially is an impingement on the rights of this legislative body -- in effect saying that the President has the authority to ignore a law that is now passed, a law that he has now signed. . . .

"If the Administration would like to explain to us what their constitutional issue is with a piece of legislation that the President has just signed, we would be happy to hear that. In the meantime, we are moving forward with this Commission."

Said Sen. Bob Casey: "Every time a senior Administration official is asked about permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, they contend that it is not their intention to construct such facilities. Yet this signing statement issued by the President yesterday is the clearest signal yet that the Administration wants to hold this option in reserve. Mr. President, that is exactly the wrong signal to send, both to the Iraqi government and its neighbors in the region. Permanent U.S. military bases gives a blank check to an Iraqi government that has shown no evidence it is ready to step up and accept its responsibility to take the training wheels off and demonstrate real leadership and governance for the Iraqi people. Permanent U.S. military bases feeds the propaganda of our enemies, who argue that the U.S. invasion in 2003 was carried out only to secure access to Iraq's oil and establish a strategic beachhead for the U.S. military in the region. Permanent U.S. military bases means that U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come, ensuring that the great strain on the U.S. military we see today will continue indefinitely."

The only White House response I've seen thus far was in an Associated Press story by Mary Clare Jalonick, who reported a White House spokeswoman's claim that the contracts investigation provision could be read to require the Justice Department to disclose whether or not it is prosecuting individuals.

"'Under longstanding constitutional principles, the executive branch may protect from disclosure certain sensitive information, including national security information, as well as information about decisions whether to file criminal charges,' the spokeswoman, Jeanie Mamo, said late Tuesday. 'The signing statement provides notice that the commission's requests for information, if they are too broad, may run afoul of the Constitution.'"

Despite the silence in its news columns, the New York Times editorial board weighs in today: "The president said [the four provisions] impinged on his constitutional powers. We asked the White House to explain that claim, but got no answer, so we'll do our best to figure it out.

"The first provision created a commission to determine how reliant the government is on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, how much waste, fraud and abuse has occurred and what has been done to hold accountable those who are responsible. Congress authorized the commission to compel government officials to testify.

"Perhaps this violated Mr. Bush's sense of his power to dole out contracts as he sees fit and to hold contractors harmless. The same theory applies to the second provision that Mr. Bush said he would not obey: a new law providing protection against reprisal to those who expose waste, fraud or abuse in wartime contracts.

"The third measure Mr. Bush rejected requires intelligence officials to respond to a request for documents from the Armed Services Committees of Congress within 45 days, either by producing the documents or explaining why they are being withheld. Clearly, this violates the power that Mr. Bush has given himself to cover up an array of illegal and improper actions, like his decisions to spy on Americans without a warrant, to torture prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions and to fire United States attorneys apparently for political reasons.

"It's glaringly obvious why Mr. Bush rejected the fourth provision, which states that none of the money authorized for military purposes may be used to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.

"It is more evidence, as if any were needed, that Mr. Bush never intended to end this war, and that he still views it as the prelude to an unceasing American military presence in Iraq."

Bush on Iraq

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Four months after announcing troop reductions in Iraq, President Bush is now sending signals that the cuts may not continue past this summer, a development likely to infuriate Democrats and renew concerns among military planners about strains on the force.

"Mr. Bush has made no decisions on troop reductions to follow those he announced last September. But White House officials said Mr. Bush had been taking the opportunity, as he did in Monday's State of the Union address, to prepare Americans for the possibility that, when he leaves office a year from now, the military presence in Iraq will be just as large as it was a year ago, or even slightly larger. . . .

"What a continuing commitment of 15 brigades -- more than 130,000 troops -- would mean for the Army as a whole is said to be a major concern of [George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff] among others on the joint staff. But officials said Mr. Bush's primary concern was not letting military gains in Iraq slip away, a warning he issued in his State of the Union address."

SOTU Fact Checking, Continued

Alissa J. Rubin and Richard A. Oppel Jr. write in the New York Times that in his State of the Union address, Bush "painted a more optimistic portrait of the current political situation than is visible to most Iraqis, glossing over the near-paralysis on reaching any far-reaching power-sharing agreement and overstating the gains in security in Iraq.

"His most optimistic claim was that 'reconciliation is taking place.'. . .

"Reconciliation efforts between Sunnis and Shiites -- or in the north between the Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen ethnic groups -- appear to have made little real progress.

"Although there is less killing, especially in Baghdad, because of the larger American presence since the 'surge,' there is still no real agreement on power-sharing or a national vision for the country.

"While Mr. Bush expressed confidence that Al Qaeda would be defeated in Iraq -- not differentiating between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown insurgent group that American officials say is foreign-led -- senior American military officials have been going to great lengths to emphasize that, despite recent American successes, the Sunni Arab insurgency remains resilient in many places."

Brooks Jackson writes for Factcheck.org that Bush "correctly noted that the number of jobs has grown steadily for a record 52 straight months. But the number of jobs gained is a fraction of the gains made during Bill Clinton's years, and wage gains have been eaten up by inflation. . . .

"He said 'we' foiled a terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic, but the plot was actually uncovered by the British, as Bush himself said in last year's State of the Union address."

Daniel Gross writes in his Newsweek column: "Rather than reveal any sense of realism about the implications of this decade's tax-and-spend policies, Bush reverted to the fundamental dishonesty that has characterized his discussion of the tax cuts right from the beginning."

Opinion Watch

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "President Bush's last State of the Union address offered no grand initiatives, which is fortunate because many of his bold plans of yesteryear await a new president to clean up.

"Bush spoke of America's 'unfinished business.' Talk about understatement. The question isn't how to finish the jobs; it's how to limit the damage."

On the occasion of Bush's final State of the Union, former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson devotes his Washington Post column to an ode to his former boss' compassionate conservatism.

"Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush's persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration."

Why such little attention or thanks for his compassionate reforms?

Writes Gerson: "The conservative movement gives the president no credit because it views all these priorities -- foreign assistance, a federal role in education, the expansion of an entitlement -- as heresies, worthy of the stake. Liberals and Democrats offer no praise because a desire to help dying Africans, minority students and low-income seniors does not fit the image of Bush's cruelty that they wish to cultivate."

FISA Watch

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "The House and Senate yesterday approved a 15-day extension of an expiring intelligence surveillance law and the White House backed off a threatened veto, allowing more time to resolve a dispute over the administration's proposal to immunize telephone companies from lawsuits stemming from their cooperation with warrantless wiretaps. . . .

"The Senate has not acted yet on a surveillance bill because of two related disputes: one among Democrats over whether to approve the legal immunity, and another between Democrats and Republicans over whether amendments are to be allowed when the proposed measure is brought to the floor for a vote.

"Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who last year shepherded a surveillance bill through the House without immunity provisions, again urged the Senate to resist Bush's lobbying."

Torture Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Tuesday that the harsh C.I.A. interrogation technique known as waterboarding was not clearly illegal, and suggested that it could be used against terrorism suspects once again if requested by the White House.

"Mr. Mukasey's statement came in a letter delivered Tuesday night to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled for Wednesday its first oversight hearing for the new attorney general."

Wrote Mukasey: "There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question."

Shenon writes that Mukasey "suggested that waterboarding might be reintroduced under the 'defined process by which any new method is proposed for authorization' in the C.I.A.'s interrogation program.

"'That process would begin with the C.I.A. director's determination that the addition of the technique was required for the program,' he continued. 'Then the attorney general would have to determine that the use of the technique is lawful under the particular conditions and circumstances proposed. Finally the president would have to approve of the use of the technique.'"

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Mukasey said in the letter that waterboarding -- a simulated drowning meant to coerce disclosures by a resisting prisoner -- is not part of a 'limited set of methods' being used by CIA interrogators. Mukasey said he has found the current methods, which he did not specify, to be legal. . . .

"Mukasey did not elaborate on what circumstances would present a close call on waterboarding. He also did not identify which laws the practice might violate, or explain his reference to 'current' law."

Blogger Marty Lederman asks: What about "those other 'enhanced interrogation techniques' in the CIA program, the ones that (unlike waterboarding) continue to be authorized -- such as hypothermia, stress positions, threats, sleep and sensory deprivation, etc.? Well, they're all perfectly ok, according to Mukasey. But he won't explain why, or even say what they are."

The View From the Red Cross

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "The International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday urged the Bush administration to establish stronger safeguards for detainees held in US custody, particularly at Guant¿namo Bay.

"Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, said the Geneva-based humanitarian organisation had made 'tangible progress' with the US government over detention-related issues in recent years, but called for improvements in the process under which prisoners captured in the 'war on terror' were detained."

In his statement, Kellenberger said that in his meeting with U.S. officials, he "outlined the ICRC's view that the detention of persons captured or arrested in connection with the fight against terrorism must take place within an appropriate legal framework, and that more robust procedural safeguards are needed, especially in Guantanamo Bay."

Kellenberger also noted that it is important for the ICRC to engage with the U.S. intelligence community: "The CIA has been active in situations of armed conflict and, as confirmed by President Bush in 2006, it has been involved in holding detainees. This is a subject of particular relevance to the ICRC."

Stimulus Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The House overwhelmingly approved a $146 billion shot in the arm for the nation's ailing economy yesterday, sending a stimulus package to the Senate with a bipartisan appeal not to slow down the bill with significant changes."

Weisman describes the "growing concern that the Senate would make changes that, at best, would force the package into House-Senate negotiations and, at worst, would court a presidential veto.

"'My concern is that we need to get this bill out of the Senate and on my desk so the checks can get in the hands of our consumers and our businesses can be assured of the incentive necessary to make investments,' President Bush told reporters in the Oval Office."

Raising Money

Bush heads West today to headline five Republican fundraisers in three days. But so the GOP doesn't have to pay all those travel expenses, he's also shoehorning a few official events between the donor-only affairs. He'll make remarks at a California helicopter plant, a Las Vegas ballroom and Hallmark Cards headquarters.

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "On Wednesday, Bush will headline two Republican National Committee fundraising events at private residences in California.

"The Thursday schedule has him in Las Vegas for a Nevada Victory (that's a state GOP organization) luncheon at a private residence. Air Force One then is off to Colorado for another private residence event. This one is for Colorado Victory and GOP Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, a former House member. . . .

"All of the events announced so far are of the closed-door variety. Not surprising, says Matt Sugar, Colorado Democratic Party spokesman. 'The (GOP) Senate candidate in question wants to keep those things private because he doesn't want to be attached to the policies of the administration,' says Sugar, who acknowledges Bush's ability to bring in the bucks for GOP candidates and causes."

Bush's Drinking

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post from Baltimore: "President Bush plopped himself into a chair between two former prisoners, Thomas Boyd and Adolphus Moseley, and asked to hear how their lives had changed. But first, he wanted them to know something about him: 'I understand addiction,' he said, 'and I understand how a changed heart can help you deal with addiction.'

"The scene inside a tiny room in an East Baltimore rowhouse Tuesday was part of an unusual day for the president, who referred repeatedly to his struggle with alcohol as a way of connecting with the participants in Jericho, a church-run program that helps former inmates find jobs and reenter society.

"'Addiction is hard to overcome,' Bush told reporters after meeting with Boyd and Moseley, both of whom told the president they had struggled with drugs. 'As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life. I understand faith-based programs. I understand that sometimes you can find the inspiration from a higher power to solve an addiction problem.'

"Bush, who was here to celebrate the seventh anniversary of his program to funnel federal funds to 'faith-based' social service organizations, has occasionally talked over the years about his struggles with alcohol before he quit in 1986 after waking up with a hangover from celebrating his 40th birthday.

"But recent encounters with those facing drug or alcohol addiction appear to have touched a chord with the president."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that Bush asked the two men "how they stopped using drugs -- and then answered his own question.

"'First is to recognize that there is a higher power,' Bush said. 'It helped me in my life. It helped me quit drinking.'

"'That's right, there is a higher power,' Mosely said.

"'Step One, right?' Bush said, referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-steps program."

As long as Bush didn't talk about his drinking, the subject was largely off limits for the Washington press corps. But now that he's bringing it up, it's worth noting that there's a lot we don't know about his relationship with alcohol.

For instance, there is no indication that Bush ever went through anything remotely like the 12 steps suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous that he alluded to yesterday. Acknowledging a higher power is only one of those 12 steps -- the second, incidentally, not the first. Others include making a "searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and making "a list of all persons we had harmed" and trying to make amends to them all.

Some attempts to psychoanalyze the president have even suggested that untreated alcoholism is a significant part of Bush's psyche. For instance, Washington psychoanalyst Justin Frank wrote in his book about Bush that the president displays all the symptoms of what AA calls a "dry drunk": "grandiosity, judgmentalism, intolerance, detachment, denial of responsibility, a tendency toward over-reaction and an aversion to introspection."

Bush Library Watch

Gretel C. Kovach and Ralph Blumenthal write in the New York Times from Dallas: "Methodists opposed to a George W. Bush Presidential Library, museum and policy institute at Southern Methodist University here are mounting a last-ditch effort to block a nearly completed deal by throwing the decision to a regional church conference in July. . . .

"The nature of the policy institute stirs much of the debate. In outlining the project to prospective universities in 2005, two officers of the foundation, Marvin P. Bush, a brother of the president, and Donald J. Evans, said the institute would be answerable to the foundation, not the university. And they said: 'Part of its mission will be to further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration,' including 'compassionate conservatism' and 'defeating terrorism.'"

Kovach and Blumenthal also note that Bush, "after he leaves office, would probably be a neighbor, as he intimated to Texas mayors last week at the White House, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Sunday. Greeting Mayor Tom Leppert of Dallas, Mr. Bush said, 'There's my new mayor.'"

Cheney Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post; "Never too early to begin transition planning. So there were Vice President Cheney and spouse Lynne out in McLean on Sunday afternoon, strolling about the house they're building in that tony suburb."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart describes what he calls "a weird, oddly subdued, utterly insincere State of the Union" -- which nevertheless seemed to delight the Vice President. "By my count, Dick Cheney smiled 12 times during that speech -- meaning he only has four smiles left for the entire year."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, Ben Sargent and Matt Davies on the State of the Union; Bob Gorell on Bush's unfinished business; Jim Morin on Bush's eternal youth.

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