The beginning of the end for the imperial presidency?I've written regularly about the Bush administration's contempt for the rule of law. A google search of this blog for the phrase 'rule of law' shows four essays on this topic relating to the Bush administration since April alone; six since the beginning of the year.
The worst part of the administration's assault of the rule of law is the shameful acquiesence on the part of legislators, that supposed co-equal branch of government which has abdicated its constitutional duty to be a part of the checks and balances process.
But it looks like the benefits of stem cell research has not only scientific benefits, but political ones too. Apparently, it's been used to grow a spine for some members of Congress.
President Bush has used something called 'signing statements' to dissent from parts of bills that he signed. The signing statement is not new, but Bush has issued more of them in a little over five years than all his predecessors combined did in the previous 212. Most of the signing statements by his predecessors have been instructions on how executive agencies should enforce the law, now how they should ignore it.
Critics add that the chief executive should not be picking and choosing which laws he feels like enforcing. If he doesn't like a bill that comes before his desk, he should veto it altogether.
Bush has issued at least 750 signing statements during his presidency, reserving the right to revise, interpret or disregard laws on national security and constitutional grounds.
These signing statements amount to line item vetoes of legislation, which are not permitted under existing law or the Constitution. Except they are more insidious and a naked power grab because since they aren't official vetoes, Congress can't override them.
Most infamously, he signed a bill that banned torture but added that he reserved to right not to enforce the ban.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has proposed legislation that would explicitly declare that these signing statements had no legal status.
"The president cannot use a signing statement to rewrite the words of a statute nor can the president use a signing statement to selectively nullify those provisions he does not like," Mr Specter said as he introduced his proposed law.
"The president cannot veto part of bill... he cannot veto certain provisions he does not like."
Mr Specter's proposed law would forbid courts from taking presidential signing statements into account when interpreting laws and would allow Congress to take the president to court over signing statements.
"If the president is permitted to re-write the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process," Mr Specter, an increasingly frequent critic of the administration, said.
The action came after the American Bar Association declared that by attaching conditions to legislation, the president has sidestepped his constitutional duty to either sign a bill, veto it, or take no action.
(Note: it's worth remembering that the ABA gave a thumbs up to both of Bush's Supreme Court nominations)
If this actually passes, which is admittedly a long shot at the moment given that hard-core conservatives control the House of Representatives, then it would be an important and long overdue step in Congress finally reigning in assertions of imperial authority by the White House.