Democrats won't commit to ending use of signing statements
John Byrne
Published: Monday February 25, 2008

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Only McCain would stop practice of 'interpreting' laws

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) will not commit to ending President George W. Bush's practice of signing statements -- a tactic whereby the president adds his interpretation to laws passed by Congress, possibly allowing his office to circumvent the law -- according to a little-noticed article Monday.

Sen. John McCain R-AZ), however, asserts he would. Asked by a Washington Post reporter, he said he'd never consider it.

"Never, never, never, never," McCain said. "If I disagree with a law that passed, I'll veto it."

Signing statements are a long-time presidential practice, dating to the fifth US president, James Monroe. No constitutional provision or federal law prohibits their usage. They didn't become popular, however, until President Ronald Reagan -- before Reagan, just 75 such statements had been issued.

It was under President Bush that the practice soared. He has challenged hundreds during his tenure.

RAW STORY's Jennifer Van Bergen first revealed the extensive use of signing statements in 2005. The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage received a Pulitzer prize for a piece detailing hundreds more.

Despite Democratic criticism of Bush's use, neither Sens. Obama or Clinton will rule out using them.

"The problem with this administration is that it has attached signing statements to legislation in an effort to change the meaning of the legislation, to avoid enforcing certain provisions of the legislation that the President does not like, and to raise implausible or dubious constitutional objections to the legislation," Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007. But, he noted: "No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president's constitutional prerogatives."

"I would only use signing statements in very rare instances to note and clarify confusing or contradictory provisions, including provisions that contradict the Constitution," Clinton told the Globe. "My approach would be to work with Congress to eliminate or correct unconstitutional provisions before legislation is sent to my desk."

"What's striking is that McCain appears perhaps even more radical than his Democratic rivals in adopting a seemingly ironclad refusal to issue signing statements," the Post says. "If he truly were to follow that approach, it would represent a sharp break in presidential practice, according to lawyers on both sides of the ideological divide."

Ironically, a McCain amendment intended to prohibit the US from torturing detainees was itself the focus of a Bush signing statement. McCain's provision sought to prohibit "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody."

Bush's signing statement reserved the right of the president to ignore the law.

"The executive branch shall construe... the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power," it said.