Presidential Signing Statements

George W. BushA political scientist at Florida International University, Kevin Evans explains, Why the Obama Administration Has Issued Fewer Signing Statements. It’s quite interesting, because I actually didn’t know anything about Obama’s signing statements. I remember being really mad about Bush’s. But Obama just hasn’t gotten much press on this issue.

There are different kinds of signing statements, of course. In fact, most are not harmful at all. Some of them are nothing more than, “This is important legislation and if it weren’t for the fact that the United States currently has pretty much the Platonic Ideal of a president, this would never have become law.” As we all know, President Bush was the king of the most pernicious form of signing statements, the constitutional challenges: “I’m signing this bill, but there are details that I don’t feel I have to abide by.” This would be like the anti-torture legislation which Bush signed by noted that he didn’t accept that minor bit about not torturing people.

Bush filed twice as many of these signing statements than all other presidents combined! I couldn’t believe that a president with a congress that gave him every damned thing he wanted would be so picky in his signing statements. It was the best illustration (and maybe my first) that the Republicans had become a proto-fascist political party. Even the smallest limitation of executive power had to resisted and resisted in the strongest possible terms. But that was then. How is the current president who gets just about nothing he ever wanted doing?

Well, it turns out that that is part of what makes him look pretty good. As Evans explains, “You cannot have signing statements without a bill signing and there has not been much bill signing lately.” But it is more than that. The biggest issue is that after Bush’s gluttony fest, people are very aware of them and they get a lot of attention. What’s more, Obama promised that he would not follow in Bush’s footsteps. But note: neither of those facts would have changed Bush’s behavior—Bush was pretty much the first Revolutionary Republican. Evans also mentions the fact that increased signing statements tend to push congress into action. That certainly would have been a much bigger deal for Obama.

So what do the numbers look like? Well, Bush created roughly 1200 of these constitutional challenges in 162 total signing statements (112 in the first term). Obama has created a total of 22 signing statements. (Evans does not provide the total number constitutional challenges, and I have been unable to find the data elsewhere; it is probably on the order of 100.) This is all good. Of course, you may remember that the Clinton administration made a big push to unclassify documents. Once Bush got into office, his administration proceeded to re-classify most of those documents. So the next Republican administration will likely continue on with the Bush approach to signing statements.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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