MSNBC: 'How Bush became a government unto himself'
Dan Abrams examined the Bush administration's unprecedented use of signing statements in the second installment of his week-long MSNBC series on "Bush League Justice."
"President Bush doesn't like to veto laws," Abrams began. "He doesn't have to. Since he took office, he's been attaching conditions to laws already passed by Congress, allowing him to essentially disobey the will of Congress and dramatically expand his own power."
Bush has issued 1100 signing statements -- almost twice as many as all previous presidents put together -- often completely reversing the intended effect of legislation. For example, when Congress voted overwhelmingly to ban torture, Bush announced that this would "make it clear to the world that this government does not torture." Two weeks later, he added a signing statement to the bill that allowed him to ignore it.
Similarly, when a bill required the Justice Department to report to Congress on the use of the Patriot Act, Bush added a proviso that he could override this requirement any time he thought necessary.
Law professor Jonathan Turley told Abrams that the practice has two very serious effects. On one hand, "by using signing statements to this extent, the president becomes a government unto himself." But it also gives lower-level officials cover for their own illegal behavior by creating a deliberate area of ambiguity about the meaning of the laws.
"How does he get away with it?" Abrams asked Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage. Savage explained that signing statements have previously been considered merely as instructions to the executive branch on how to interpret legislation, and typically no one outside the executive branch even reads them.
"It's an extraordinarily destabilizing effect upon our system," Turley emphasized. "Our system really only has one rule that can't be broken ... That one rule is, you can't go outside the rules." Once the executive ceases to respect the authority of the legislative branch, everything else is thrown into doubt.
Savage noted that Dick Cheney appears to be the motivating force in this expansion of presidential power. Cheney was chief of staff to President Gerald Ford in the 1970's, when Congress was taking steps to prevent any future Watergate-style excesses, and he has never ceased trying to bring things back to the way they were under Nixon.
According to Savage, Cheney's aide David Addington, who has been with him since the 1980's "is said to be the chief architect of these signing statements" and is the leader of the legal team pushing the most radical theories of presidential power.
"It's astounding to me how they continue to get away with this," Abrams concluded.
The following video is from MSNBC's Abrams Report, broadcast on December 11, 2007