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  Presidential Signing Statements

  Hoover - Obama

Frequently Asked Questions... by John T. Woolley
• What is a Signing Statement?
• Is George W. Bush the first President to issue signing statements?
• I’ve searched your website for George W. Bush’s signing statements and only find about 140. The Boston Globe said there were 750. Where are the rest of them?
• Is it true that George W. Bush has issued many more signing statements than any other president?
• What kind of claims does Bush make in his signing statements that has people upset?
• How can I quickly locate a lot of the controversial signing statements?
• Didn’t the American Bar Association declare that Bush’s use of signing statements was unconstitutional?
• What does the ABA Task Force say the president should do if he thinks a bill passed by congress includes unconstitutional provisions?
• Is this a liberal-conservative issue? Are there any liberals that side with Bush?
Select Year      
President Date Title
William J. Clinton March 17, 1994 Statement on Signing Legislation on Highway Bridge Seismic Retrofitting
William J. Clinton March 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Federal Workforce Restructuring Act of 1994
William J. Clinton April 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995
William J. Clinton May 4, 1994 Statement on Signing the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994
William J. Clinton May 11, 1994 Statement on Signing the Farmers Home Administration Improvement Act of 1994
William J. Clinton May 18, 1994 Statement on Signing the Human Services Amendments of 1994
William J. Clinton June 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Independent Counsel Reauthorization Act of 1994
William J. Clinton July 5, 1994 Statement on Signing Transportation Legislation
William J. Clinton July 5, 1994 Statement on Signing Federal Housing Administration Legislation
William J. Clinton July 22, 1994 Statement on Signing the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton August 15, 1994 Statement on Signing the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994
William J. Clinton August 17, 1994 Statement on Signing the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994
William J. Clinton August 23, 1994 Statement on Signing the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994
William J. Clinton August 26, 1994 Statement on Signing the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton August 26, 1994 Statement on Signing Transportation Legislation
William J. Clinton August 26, 1994 Statement on Signing the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act
William J. Clinton September 28, 1994 Statement on Signing the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act,
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the District of Columbia Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton September 30, 1994 Statement on Signing the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 1995
William J. Clinton October 5, 1994 Statement on Signing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1995
William J. Clinton October 13, 1994 Statement on Signing the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 13, 1994 Statement on Signing the Government Management Reform Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 13, 1994 Statement on Signing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 22, 1994 Statement on Signing the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 22, 1994 Statement on Signing the Small Business Administration Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 25, 1994 Statement on Signing the Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 25, 1994 Statement on Signing the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 25, 1994 Statement on Signing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994
William J. Clinton October 25, 1994 Statement on Signing Legislation Regarding United States Policy Toward Haiti
William J. Clinton October 29, 1994 Statement on Signing Legislation To Reauthorize the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Special Counsel
William J. Clinton October 31, 1994 Statement on Signing California Desert Protection Legislation
William J. Clinton November 2, 1994 Statement on Signing the International Antitrust Enforcement Assistance Act of 1994
William J. Clinton November 2, 1994 Statement on Signing Veterans Benefits Legislation

Q:  What is a Signing Statement?

A:  A “Signing Statement” is a written comment issued by a President at the time of signing legislation.  Often signing statements merely comment on the bill signed, saying that it is good legislation or meets some pressing needs.  The more controversial statements involve claims by presidents that they believe some part of the legislation is unconstitutional and therefore they intend to ignore it or to implement it only in ways they believe is constitutional.  Some critics argue that the proper presidential action is either to veto the legislation (Constitution, Article I, section 7) or to “faithfully execute” the laws (Constitution, Article II, section 3).

Q:  Is George W. Bush the first President to issue signing statements?

A:  NO.  Several sources trace “signing statements” back to James Monroe.  Interesting early statements that include discussions about presidential doubt about legislation and the issue of how the president should proceed are found from Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Ulysses Grant.  A brief overview can be found in the ABA Task Force cited below.

Monroe’s messages did not look like what are today considered “signing statement.”  Rather he informed Congress in a message January 17, 1822, that he had resolved what he saw as a confusion in the law in a way that the thought was consistent with his constitutional authority.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=66281

Even more forcefully, Monroe sent another message dated April 6, 1822, (that refers to his January 17, 1822 message as having “imperfectly explained” his concerns) stating “If the right of the President to fill these original vacancies by the selection of officers from any branch of the whole military establishment was denied, he would be compelled to place in them officers of the same grade whose corps had been reduced, and they with them. The effect, therefore, of the law as to those appointments would be to legislate into office men who had been already legislated out of office, taking from the President all agency in their appointment. Such a construction would not only be subversive of the obvious principles of the Constitution, but utterly inconsistent with the spirit of the law itself, since it would provide offices for a particular grade, and fix every member of that grade in those offices, at a time when every other grade was reduced, and among them generals and other officers of the highest merit. It would also defeat every object of selection, since colonels of infantry would be placed at the head of regiments of artillery, a service in which they might have had no experience, and for which they might in consequence be unqualified.”  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=66303

In May 1830, Andrew Jackson wrote an message to the House stating his understanding of the limits of an appropriation:  “the phraseology of the section which appropriates the sum of $8,000 for the road from Detroit to Chicago may be construed to authorize the application of the appropriation for the continuance of the road beyond the limits of the Territory of Michigan, I desire to be understood as having approved this bill with the understanding that the road authorized by this section is not to be extended beyond the limits of the said Territory.”  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=66775

Tyler, issued a prototypical “reluctant” signing statement, in which he signs a piece of legislation concerning legislative apportionment while announcing, for the record, that he thinks it is unconstitutional:  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=67545

Polk in 1848 similarly warned that while he was signing legislation that established a government in the Oregon territory prohibiting slavery, that he would not have signed similar legislation that involved New Mexico and California south of the “Missouri Compromise Line”:  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=68034

Q:  I’ve searched your website for George W. Bush’s signing statements and only find about 140.  The Boston Globe said there were 750.  Where are the rest of them?

A:  In an article published on April 30, 2006, the Globe wrote that “President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.”  In a clarification issued May 4, 2006, the Globe note that Bush had not really challenged 750 bills (which would have implied 750 signing statements), but “has claimed the authority to bypass more than 750 statutes, which were provisions contained in about 125 bills.” 

Q:  Is it true that George W. Bush has issued many more signing statements than any other president?

A:  No, Bill Clinton issued many more signing statements.  The controversy is about the kind of signing statements Bush has issued.

Q:  What kind of claims does Bush make in his signing statements that has people upset?

A:  In one frequently used phrase, George W. Bush has routinely asserted that he will not act contrary to the constitutional provisions that direct the president to “supervise the unitary executive branch.”  This formulation can be found first in a signing statement of Ronald Reagan, and it was repeated several times by George H. W. Bush.  Basically, Bush asserts that Congress cannot pass a law that undercuts the constitutionally granted authorities of the President. 

Q:  How can I quickly locate a lot of the controversial signing statements?

A:  In our search function for all presidential papers, search on:  “my constitutional authority” OR “unitary executive”.  This will return about 250 documents.  Most of them, from Ronald Reagan to the present are signing statements—but there are several veto messages sprinkled among them.

Q:  Didn’t the American Bar Association declare that Bush’s use of signing statements was unconstitutional?

A:  In July 2006, an ABA “Blue Ribbon Task Force”—not “The ABA”—found that these presidential assertions of constitutional authority “undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers.”  The report of the bipartisan commission, which relied on the American Presidency Project database, can be found here:  http://www.abanet.org/media/docs/signstatereport.pdf

Q:  What does the ABA Task Force say the president should do if he thinks a bill passed by congress includes unconstitutional provisions?

A:  Veto the bill. 

Q:  Is this a liberal-conservative issue?  Are there any liberals that side with Bush?

A:  An important legal statement in support of the use of signing statements was developed by Bernard Nussbaum, Counsel to President Clinton in 1993 (i.e. while the Democrats still had Congressional majorities).  Nussbaum stated that the Department of Justice had advised three prior presidents that the Constitution provided authority to decline to enforce a clearly unconstitutional law.  The entire 1993 memo may be found here:  http://www.usdoj.gov/olc/signing.htm

In an essay published in the Boston Globe on August 9, 2006, liberal scholar Lawrence Tribe wrote that signing statements are “informative and constitutionally unobjectionable.”  Tribe writes that what is objectionable is “the president’s failure to face the political music by issuing a veto and subjecting that veto to the possibility of an override in Congress.”  An eventual challenge to a president should come not to the statement, but to the fact that a president failed to enforce a law or that his actions resulted in harm to others.  In the latter case, Tribe has in mind Presidential directives about how to treat “unlawful combatants.”  Tribe’s essay can be found here:  http://www.boston.com/
 
 
 

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