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

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.