Power Grab

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

Grover Norquist, a principal organizer of the conservative movement who is close to the Bush White House and usually supports its policies, says, “If you interpret the Constitution’s saying that the president is commander in chief to mean that the president can do anything he wants and can ignore the laws you don’t have a constitution: you have a king.” He adds, “They’re not trying to change the law; they’re saying that they’re above the law and in the case of the NSA wiretaps they break it.” A few members of Congress recognize the implications of what Bush is doing and are willing to speak openly about it. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic senator from California, talks of a “very broad effort” being made “to increase the power of the executive.” Chuck Hagel, Republican senator from Nebraska, says:

There’s a very clear pattern of aggressively asserting executive power, and the Congress has essentially been complicit in letting him do it. The key is that Bush has a Republican Congress; of course if it was a Clinton presidency we’d be holding hearings.

The public scenes of the President surrounded by smiling legislators whom he praises for their wonderful work as he hands out the pens he has used to sign the bill are often utterly misleading. The elected officials aren’t informed at that time of the President’s real intentions concerning the law. After they leave, the President’s signing statements—which he does not issue verbally at the time of signing—are placed in the Federal Register, a compendium of US laws, which members of Congress rarely read. And they are often so technical, referring as they do to this subsection and that statute, that they are difficult to understand.

For five years, Bush has been issuing a series of signing statements which amount to a systematic attempt to take power from the legislative branch. Though Ronald Reagan started issuing signing statements to set forth his own position on a piece of legislation, he did it essentially to guide possible court rulings, and he only occasionally objected to a particular provision of a bill. Though subsequent presidents also issued such statements, they came nowhere near to making the extraordinary claims that Bush has; nor did they make such statements nearly so often.

According to an article in The Boston Globe, Bush has claimed the right to ignore more than 750 laws enacted since he became president. He has unilaterally overruled Congress on a broad range of matters, refusing, for example, to accept a requirement for more diversity in awarding government science scholarships. He has overruled numerous provisions of congressional appropriations bills that he felt impinged on his executive power. He has also overruled Congress’s requirement that he report back to it on how he has implemented a number of laws. Moreover, he has refused to enforce laws protecting whistle-blowers and providing safeguards against…


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