A Democratic majority, but Bush still has his say

Will the president continue to use signing statements to thwart the will of Congress?

By Tim Grieve
Published January 4, 2007 4:46PM (EST)

In his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Wednesday, George W. Bush laid out the ways in which he and Republicans in Congress remain relevant in the face of Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. "The minority party, especially where the margins are close, has a strong say in the form bills take," Bush wrote. "And the Constitution leaves it to the president to use his judgment whether they should be signed into law."

Something Bush didn't mention: His frequent use of presidential signing statements to write out of legislation any provisions that he doesn't like. As the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage reported last year, Bush has been "far more" aggressive than any of his predecessors in using the statements to declare "his right to ignore vast swaths of laws."

He's still at it. When Bush signed something called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act on Dec. 20, he issued a signing statement in which he said the executive branch would "construe" the act "in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."

Translation: Although existing law and the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act require the government to obtain a warrant before opening your mail, the president will "construe" the act's provisions as meaning that his administration has the authority to do so without a court's approval.

Rep. Henry Waxman, who co-sponsored the act, tells the New York Daily News that Bush's signing statement flatly contradicts the law Congress passed. A White House spokeswoman says it's much ado about nothing. "In certain circumstances -- such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' -- the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," Emily Lawrimore tells the Daily News.

Without delving into the legal merits of that argument, we'd note that Bush's signing statement isn't limited to "ticking bomb" moments. It talks of "exigent circumstances" and the need to conduct "foreign intelligence," creating a "construed" exception large enough to swallow the rule Congress was aiming to enforce.

If that's how Bush treats legislation adopted by a Republican-controlled Congress, what can we expect from him when the Democrats' first bills begin to turn up on his desk?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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