A would-be emperor

Whatever future historians say about President Bush, they will certainly note that during his two terms executive power was asserted dramatically. While the ascendancy of the executive branch has taken several forms, Bush’s use of presidential signing statements is one of the most dramatic – and troubling – examples.

The Bush administration tries to explain this away by saying presidents dating back to James Monroe have used signing statements to express their constitutional concerns about legislation before them. That is true, but Bush has caused justifiable alarm by the number of times he has done this – some 110 statements challenging about 750 statutes passed by Congress.

So prevalent have presidential signing statements become that the American Bar Association has convened a task force to study their implications. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing at which it took testimony on both sides of the issue.

The committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has his own concerns about the practice: “It’s a challenge to the plain language of the Constitution,” he said. “There is a sense that the president has taken signing statements far beyond the customary purview.”

In a statement to the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., bluntly put his finger on the central concern. He said the “administration has taken what was otherwise a press release and transformed it into a proclamation stating which parts of the law the president will follow and which parts he will simply ignore.”

Perhaps the most notorious example, cited by several speakers, was last year’s legislation that prohibited the White House and all its branches from using torture in interrogating detainees. Guided by the moral authority of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured himself as a POW in North Vietnam, Congress resisted Vice President Dick Cheney’s cold-blooded advocacy of allowing the torture of prisoners.

In the face of this opposition, Bush finally came around to the decent position. But no sooner had the applause faded than he signed the legislation with a statement that suggests he will do what he likes.

The president – any president – takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, and signing statements concerning legislation a president deems unconstitutional betray that obligation. This is despite the fact that a constitutionally approved remedy for suspect legislation is readily at hand _ the presidential veto. The extraordinary thing about Bush is that he has never exercised the veto. Not once.

Bush has made much of his desire for judges who will respect the law and the Constitution – and yet he doesn’t do it himself. Indeed, those future historians will have much to consider about these times, and part of that may be not only how Americans lost their sense of well-being after 9/11, but also how a president used those attacks to become more like an emperor.