The Bush administration will have to explain why it ignores or overrule laws passed by Congress, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said on Wednesday.
Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said he hoped to force the Bush administration to reduce its use of “signing statements” — memos that reserve the right to ignore laws if the president thinks they impinge on his authority.
“Our legislation doesn’t amount to anything if the president can say, ‘My constitutional authority supersedes the statute.’ And I think we’ve got to lay down the gauntlet and challenge him on it,” Specter said in a telephone interview.
A Justice Department official is scheduled to testify at a hearing on signing statements next Tuesday, Specter said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who had lunch with Specter on Wednesday, will face questions about the presidential memos when he appears before the committee on July 18 to discuss the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program.
Bush has signed at least 750 such memos since taking office in 2001, according to the Boston Globe, more than previous presidential administrations combined.
Bush has used signing statements to signal that he might bypass a ban on the torture of U.S.-held prisoners and ignore new provisions in an anti-terrorism law that call for increased congressional oversight.
Specter said the heavy use of signing statements fits in with a larger pattern of overreaching by the Bush administration, from the NSA’s surveillance program to a first-ever raid on a congressman’s office as part of a bribery probe.
Trying to legislate against signing statements probably would not work, Specter said, but there might be other ways to force the administration to curb their use.
“Maybe we can find some pressure point on the budget or appropriations or confirmations or something of that sort,” he said. “I’m thinking about all the alternatives.”
A White House official said signing statements help the public understand how a given law will be enforced and can provide guidance to courts as they interpret it.
“They are used appropriately and the content is consistent with that of past presidents,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Specter has clashed with the White House in recent months about the spying program and recently accused Vice President Dick Cheney of meddling in his committee’s affairs.
Specter has been trying to reach a compromise with Cheney and other officials on legislation that would allow a special court to review the surveillance program.
“We’ve made some progress on it but I’m not prepared to give you the details,” he said. “This is a major matter for them that they have not yet finished.”
© 2006 Reuters