Signing Statements for You and Me

I’m a little behind on some of the summer’s news, particularly news that was dropped like a runny popsicle by most news agencies.  Earlier this month, the American Bar Association formally protested President Bush’s overuse (in their eyes) of “signing statements,” which U.S. Presidents can add to bills as they sign them.  Historically, these signing statements were usually on the order of “Great piece of legislation, everyone!” and they were relatively rare.  Recent presidents have been using them more frequently, often “to declare that sections of the bills they sign are unconstitutional [in their opinion], and that they thus need not be enforced as Congress wrote them” (Boston Globe, 7/24/06; outraged emphasis mine). Clinton did this more than 100 times.  Bush has done it more than 700 times. Which explains something that puzzled me; namely, why Bush doesn’t veto legislation.  Vetoes call attention to themselves and can be overridden by Congress.  Signing statements tend to fly under the radar, and they’re much harder to counter.  By using signing statements, presidents can essentially give themselves the line-item veto, which has been ruled unconstitutional.  This is not only a separation-of-powers issue, but a nonpartisan issue, as the next President will be sorely tempted to continue the trend if it isn’t stopped, no matter his/her party.

Is the widespread use of signing statements unethical?  Let’s look at it the way Kant might.  What if everyone used them?  Try it.  The next time you have to accept or reject a contract—a job description, a mortgage, wedding vows, etc.—just write in small letters (or mutter under your breath), “Not,” next to any parts of the contract you don’t think should be enforced.  Then don’t feel obligated to fulfill that part of the contract, and see what happens.

As you’re being escorted out of the building, sitting in jail, or watching your former spouse burn your possessions, just think what a shame it is you aren’t President.