When A Signature Doesn't Mean Much

The leading presidential candidates have taken contrasting positions on the constitutionally dubious practice of presidential “signing statements” — when a president signs a bill into law, but issues a separate statement explaining that this or that provision is unconstitutional, wrong, or fattening.
John McCain says . . . Never! He won’t do it.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say. . . Hardly ever.
In contrast, George W. Bush has thumpingly abused the signing-statement ploy.
The Constitution makes no provision for signing statements. Under Article I, Section 7, bills approved by both houses of Congress are presented to the President. He can sign it or return (veto) it. If he vetoes it, his veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of each house.
Then there’s the non-signing and the “pocket veto.” If the president does not sign or veto a bill, it automatically becomes law UNLESS Congress is no longer in session, in which case it doesn’t. That last trick is called the “pocket veto,” because the president puts the bill in his pocket and it is never seen again.
Signing statements, starting with President James Monroe almost 200 years ago, developed as a way for the president to have his cake and eat it, too.

With the signing statement, a bill becomes law with the president’s approval, but he/she explains his understanding of terms and provisions that may be unclear. Recent presidents, including Reagan, the Other Bush, and the Other Clinton, greatly expanded the use of signing statements. Reagan issues 72; the Other Bush 232; the Other Clinton 140.
This President Bush has taken signing statements to a dazzling new level, issuing over 750 signing statements (and doing so even when his own party controlled Congress for six of his first seven years in office). He has transformed this executive safety-valve into a full-fledged abuse of the Constitution, and Congress and the courts have done nothing to stop him.
President Bush has identified a huge range of legislative provisions that he will not carry out because they are, in his view, inconsistent with the prerogatives of the executive branch. So, for example, he has signed six laws the ban the construction of permanent military bases in IIraq without any reduction in the actual construction of those bases. So, too, he has declined to enforce laws barring torture by U.S. officials, or establishing a commission to investigate fraud by contractors in Iraq.
All three of the remaining presidential candidates are currently members of the Senate, and evidently do not share the current incumbent’s imperial view of the presidential role in lawmaking. It will be a welcome change.


  1. klkatz on February 25, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    I had no idea these signing statements existed, let alone have been used so often.
    i taught high school civics and government and now feel sheepish for being unaware of it.

  2. Wayland Stallard on February 28, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I heard some experts discussing this a few days ago on the Diane Rehm show. One of the fellows said the signing statements represented the president’s understanding of what he was signing and contituted a form of protection for him should he be later accused of high crimes and misdemeanors.
    Another of the guests said it had to be very carefully worded so that it did not prima facie contradict the law being signed.
    Did you hear that program?
    I did not hear the program, and must confess that the first statement strikes me as silly. The laws states what it states, and the president’s signing statement will have no impact on that. There is no occasion on which it has been suggested that a president should be impeached (for a high crime and misdemeanor) because he SIGNED a bill — the problems have arisen only with vetoes!
    The second statement (that the president has to be careful not to contradict the law) is a nice principle, but it is exactly that principal that President Bush has violated repeatedly with signing statements that squarely contradict or repudiate parts of the bills he signs.

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