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Signing Statements – The Key Implement of the Soft Dictatorship

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-Jack O’Spades

Do you remember civics class? Do you recall the notion of the three branches of the American government, and the importance of checks and balances? Let me review for those of you who have forgotten. The legislature (ie. the senate and the congress) draft laws, the judiciary challenges laws that are believed to be unconstitutional, and the executive (ie. the president, vice president, and their cabinet) signs laws into action and enforces them. This is the way our democracy is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, a little known change in the use of an obscure executive practice is threatening the balance of power in the US government. That practice is that of the signing statement, a practice originating with the fifth US president, James Monroe. The signing statement was originally used by the executive as a means of explaining their outlook on a particular law, and how they planned to enforce it. The statement was not recognized as an amendment or addendum to the law it referred to it was merely a statement of opinion.

As such, the signing statement was used infrequently by US presidents with only 75 made until Reagan became president, an average of about 2 per president. At that point the number of signing statements sky rocketed to 247 in the next three administrations, an increase of 325%. Our current president would increase this number to a whopping 107, just in his first term.

The increase coincided with an attempt to change the very nature of the signing statement. The practice has evolved into an attempt to alter laws as passed by the legislature. Although the last four presidents have all abused the signing statement, our current president is on a completely different level. Without a hint of shame, he has turned the signing statement into an unchallengeable line item veto. This has been done without any attempt at concealment at all.

In applying a line item veto in such a manner, the president has in effect captured the other two branches of government. He has claimed the judicial power to declare either part of, or an entire law to be unconstitutional. He also has claimed the ability to add statements onto bills, effectively giving himself the ability to declare powers or establish rules without congressional consent.

The president’s defense has been that the executive has the power to refuse to enforce measures that curtail the constitutional power of the executive branch. This is blatantly absurd, only the judiciary has the ability to declare constitutionality of laws. Otherwise, the executive would be (and currently is) able to override the powers of other branches with impunity by modifying or simply ignoring laws.

So far our president has drafted 157 signing statements, challenging over 1,100 provisions of federal law (see the full list here: He has used the signing statement to nullify a ban against torture, to allow warrantless wiretapping of US citizens, and the ability to hold prisoners without differing to domestic or international law. This is absolutely unacceptable, and such a gross violation of constitutional cannot go unchallenged. Unfortunately, our new democratic congress seems to have adopted the motto, “lie back and take it”. They are unwilling to make the strong statement that needs to be made about this, and this sends a very dangerous precedent.

Future presidents should not have the ability to justify similar behavior on the grounds that it was accepted in this administration. Even if the next president avoids the use of the signing statement , the lack of corrective action could be fatal to our democracy. What is particularly frightening is that the democratic candidates have stated that they will use signing statements if elected (!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } — Whether they will attempt to use them in the same manner as the last four presidents remains to be seen, but their refusal to abandon the practice outright is disturbing to say the least.

The current president obviously will not back down, and he must be punished for this. This is yet another reason that the congress should seriously consider initiating impeachment proceedings. It is important to note that this is not a partisan issue, regardless of party affiliation or political alignment (except for fascists, monarchists, and other dictatorial admirers) this issue is seriously important to every American who even vaguely believes in democracy.


Written by jackofspades83

February 24, 2008 at 6:43 pm

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