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The Unitary Executive

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In the Framers’ Constitution, after Congress passes a law and sends it to the President for signature, the president has the right either to sign the bill into law, or to veto it, in which case it can still become law if it receives the proper extraordinary two-thirds majority in the House and Senate. In the Cheney-Addington Constitution, the President is simply entitled to sign the bill, and issue a statement in which he tailors it exactly as he wishes – making amendments and changes as it suits him. These emendations are either done secretly or they are contained in a Signing Statement issued by the president at the time he signs the bill. You might call this entire process a secret amendment of the Constitution.

But, the president’s friends argue, this is just a system designed to protect the Constitutional powers of the presidency against encroachment from the Congress. It applies only in certain rare instances, right?

Wrong. A study by the Government Accounting Office gives us the bad news. About 30 per cent of all laws are now covered by these Signing Statements have simply been ignored, and President Bush uses the Signing Statement as his magic pencil to change whatever he likes. Read the GAO report here.

Three good samples are pulled out by the Center for American Progress, of which the first is particularly telling:

  • In 2005, after Congress passed a law outlawing the torture of detainees, Bush issued a signing statement saying that he would “construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President . . . as Commander in Chief,” which experts say means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions.

  • In 2006, Congress passed a law requiring minimum qualifications for future heads of the Federal Emergency Management Administration in response to FEMA’s poor handling of Hurricane Katrina. When Bush signed the law, he issued a statement saying he could ignore the new restrictions and appoint a FEMA chief based on whatever qualifications he wanted.

  • In 2006, Bush signed a statement saying he would view a ban on “the transfer of nuclear technology to India if it violates international non proliferation guidelines” as “advisory.” Indian newspapers reported that the government of India took note of Bush’s statement, “raising the possibility it would not take the ban seriously.”

Increasingly, the Congress has become a sort of ornament that doesn’t really matter. The power of the Presidency simply pushes it into the margins. This is not the governance system the Founding Fathers designed. More and more, it’s tyranny.

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