WASHINGTON—New House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers used his first oversight hearing Wednesday to say that he's launching an investigation into President Bush's possible abuse of presidential signing statements.
Democrats and some Republican lawmakers have accused Bush of conducting an imperial presidency by using bill signing statements to declare that he'll interpret legislative provisions his way and will feel free to ignore some terms.
"That conduct threatens to deprive the American people of one of the basic rights of democracy—the right to elect representatives who determine what the law is, subject only to the president's veto," Conyers said as he opened a hearing on signing statements. "That does not mean having a president sign those laws, but then say that he is free to carry them out or not, as only he sees fit."
Though some influential Republicans, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have railed against Bush's signing statements, several House Judiciary Committee Republicans balked Wednesday, describing Conyers' hearing and vow as political fishing expeditions.
"One has the distinct feeling that this is really a policy debate," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the committee's ranking Republican. "If critics of signing statements agreed with the president on policy, we simply would not be here today."
Some legal experts disagree, saying that Bush's assertion of this arguable executive authority undercuts Congress and enhances the power of the president beyond the limits set by the Constitution.
"The potential for misuse in the issuance of presidential signing statements has reached the point where it poses a real threat to our system of checks and balances and the rule of law," said Karen J. Mathis, president of the American Bar Association. The ABA approved a resolution last August condemning the way Bush uses signing statements and their frequency.
Bush has issued 147 signing statements, according to Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Signing statements don't have the weight of law, but they can influence judicial interpretations of a statute. The statements also send a strong message to executive- branch agencies on how the White House wants them to carry out federal laws.
In written testimony, Assistant Attorney General John P. Elwood said that Bush has never used signing statements as an attempt to "override" enacted laws.
But several legal experts and lawmakers contend that some of the president's signing statements have that potential. Some point to a signing statement regarding the McCain amendment, which forbids U.S. torture of prisoners.
After he signed the amendment into law with fanfare in December 2005, Bush quietly issued a signing statement from his Texas ranch saying that he would view the law "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president . . . as commander in chief."
He added that his approach "will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the president . . . of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."
The Bush White House maintains that because the nation is in an indefinite war on terror, Bush's constitutional authority as commander in chief has virtually no boundary. His language in the signing statement on the McCain amendment was widely viewed as reserving himself the right to ignore it.
Still, Georgetown University law professor Nicholas Rosenkrantz told the committee that the "brouhaha over presidential signing statements is largely unwarranted." He said previous presidents have issued similar statements, although other scholars have said that none before Bush asserted the right to ignore terms in a law.
The White House rejects assertions that Bush is abusing his authority.
"President Bush's signing statements are consistent with prior administrations' signing statements," Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, said in a written statement. "He is exercising a legitimate power in a legitimate way."
Former Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., urged Congress to fight the White House tooth and nail on the issue.
"Presidential signing statements may not sound like such a big deal, but they are declarations of the right of a president to be above the law, and that is a path that, once taken, will prove ultimately fatal to our democracy," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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