In signing statement, Bush looks to bypass four laws

Email|Print| Text size + By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / January 29, 2008

WASHINGTON - President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent US military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill.

Bush made the assertion in a signing statement that he issued late Monday after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008. In the signing statement, Bush asserted that four sections of the bill unconstitutionally infringe on his powers, and so the executive branch is not bound to obey them.

"Provisions of the act...purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the president’s ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as commander in chief," Bush said. "The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President."

One section Bush targeted created a statute that forbids spending taxpayer money "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

The Bush administration is negotiating a long-term agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The agreement is to include the basing of US troops in Iraq after 2008, as well as security guarantees and other economic and political ties between the United States and Iraq.

The negotiations have drawn fire in part because the administration has said it does not intend to designate the compact as a "treaty," and so will not submit it to Congress for approval. Critics are also concerned Bush might lock the United States into a deal that would make it difficult for the next president to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

"Every time a senior administration official is asked about permanent US military bases in Iraq, they contend that it is not their intention to construct such facilities," said Senator Robert P. Casey Jr., Democrat of Pennsylvania, in a Senate speech yesterday. "Yet this signing statement issued by the president yesterday is the clearest signal yet that the administration wants to hold this option in reserve."

Several other congressional Democrats also took issue with the signing statement.

"I reject the notion in his signing statement that he can pick and choose which provisions of this law to execute," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. "His job, under the Constitution, is to faithfully execute the law - every part of it - and I expect him to do just that."

Bush's signing statement did not explain the specific basis for his objection to the prohibition on establishing permanent military bases in Iraq. But last year, the White House told Congress that a similar provision in another bill "impermissibly infringes upon the president's constitutional authority to negotiate treaties and conduct the nation's foreign affairs."

Some legal specialists disagreed with the administration's legal theory.

"Congress clearly has the authority to enact this limitation of the expenditure of funds for permanent bases in Iraq," said Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor who was the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration.

Bush's frequent use of signing statements to advance aggressive theories of executive power has been a hallmark of his presidency. Previous presidents occasionally used the device, but Bush has challenged more sections of bills than all his predecessors combined - among them, a ban on torture.

Bush signing statements prompted widespread controversy when his record came to light in 2006. After Democrats took over Congress in 2007, Bush initially issued fewer and less aggressive signing statements. But his new statement returned to the previous approach, observers said.

The signing statement also targeted a provision in the defense bill that strengthens protections for whistle-blowers working for companies that hold government contracts. The new law expands employees' ability to disclose wrongdoing without being fired, and it gives greater responsibility to federal inspectors general to investigate complaints of retaliation.

In addition, Bush targeted a section that requires intelligence agencies to turn over "any existing intelligence assessment, report, estimate or legal opinion" requested by the leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees within 45 days. If the president wants to assert executive privilege to deny the request, the law says, White House counsel must do so in writing.

Finally, Bush's signing statement raised constitutional questions about a section of the bill that established an independent, bipartisan "Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan" to investigate allegations of waste, mismanagement, and excessive force by contractors. The law requires the Pentagon to provide information to the panel "expeditiously" upon its request.

The signing statement did not make clear whether Bush is objecting to the creation of the commission because some of its members will be appointed by Congress or whether he is reserving the right to turn down its requests for information - or both.

Phillip Cooper, a political science professor at Portland State University, noted that Bush's statement does not clearly spell out the basis for any of his challenges. Cooper, who has been a pioneer in studying signing statements, said the vague language itself is a problem.

"It is very hard for Congress or the American people to figure out what is supposed to happen and what the implications of this are," Cooper said.

The White House did not respond to a Globe request to explain the objections in greater detail. But the Bush administration has repeatedly insisted that its use of signing statements has been both lawful and appropriate.

Still, the signing statement makes one thing clear, according to David Barron, a Harvard law professor. The White House, he said, is pressing forward with its effort to establish that the commander in chief can defy laws limiting his options in national security matters. The administration made similar assertions in recent disputes over warrantless wiretapping and interrogation methods, he said.

"What this shows is that they’re continuing to assert the same extremely aggressive conception of the president's unilateral power to determine how and when US force will be used abroad, and that's a dramatic departure from the American constitutional tradition," said Barron, who was a Justice Department official in the 1990s.

In 2006, the American Bar Association condemned signing statements as "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers." The ABA called on presidents to stop using the device and to limit themselves either to signing a bill and then obeying all of it or vetoing the bill if they consider it unconstitutional.

Among the leading candidates in the 2008 presidential primary elections, Republican Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has said he would issue signing statements if he is elected, while Senator John McCain of Arizona has said he would never issue one.

The two leading Democrats, Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, have both said that they would issue signing statements if elected, but that they would do so much less frequently than Bush.

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