Signing statements = petard?

Bush famously uses signing statements to arrogate executive power. But in doing so, says Anonymous Liberal, he may in one crucial instance have undercut his own story.

As those following the executive-power argument have come to realize, President Bush is fond of using presidential signing statements to arrogate executive authority and declare that laws that limit his power will be interpreted by him as unenforceable. (This is rather significant, since he’s supposed to be doing the enforcing.) For those who want to know, for instance, why I think that McCain won the politics of the torture issue but lost the policy, read Dahlia Lithwick’s explanation in Slate.

Anonymous Liberal claims that Bush tripped himself up with one of these, essentially admitting that he didn’t have the power to do the warrantless wiretaps until he signed the Patriot Act—when in fact he had been doing so all along. I’m not an attorney and I don’t have the time (frankly) to check the chronology, but Anonymous’ arguments look initially convincing—well worth a closer look by those in a better position to judge carefully.

The politics of this? Well, it’s way too complicated for a sound bite, but might be the kind of thing that a senator could be brought to ask during Specter’s hearings. And the opinions of ticked-off senators sometimes trickle down into public opinion, when reinforced by other things and in the very long term.

UPDATE: Anonymous points out that the above could be misinterpreted. I didn’t mean to claim that Bush really DID have the power to do warrantless wiretaps after signing the Patriot Act. The act granted no such power (though it did grant the power to do roving wiretaps and other things). I was saying on the contrary that Bush’s absurd claim that the Patriot Act let him do warrantless wiretaps for the first time undercuts his later—even more absurd—claim that he had these powers as soon as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (in a war against Afghanistan, as most of us naïvely thought at the time) was passed. I was comparing two howlers, not a howler with something more reasonable. At least, I was reporting Anonymous’ doing so and saying that he seems right.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.