Okay, so maybe that headline is a bit of an extreme exaggeration. I'm sorry. ... But not really.
The way things are supposed to work in these United States of ours is that Congress passes the laws through a process that includes majority votes in each of the two houses. Then the laws get passed on to the President who can either sign it (and with that signature put the law into effect) or veto it (which sends it back to Congress for another try). Then, if anybody feels the new law is in conflict with established law or the Constitution itself, challenges may be heard by the third branch of government, the courts. Simple, right?
Now, occasionally through history, Presidents have signed a law they weren't wild about, and while signing issued a "signing statement." These are usually no more than guidance on how the President thinks the law should be administered, and do not carry the force of law. They are inserted into the Federal Register, but are entirely unofficial.
President Bush has expanded the practice, issuing more signing statements than any previous President. Further, Bush has used signing statements to completely ignore laws that he himself has passed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Republican Arlen Specter, will today begin a hearing on this practice that specter considers "an example of the administration's abuse of power."
The administration is expected to officially argue back that no laws are binding on the President when he "reserves the right to revise, interpret or disregard it on national security and constitutional grounds."
If the President can pick and choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore and knowingly violate without the consent of the other two branches of government than our system of checks and balances ceases to exist. And that's where my crack about "absolute dictator" comes in.
Citing everything from the illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens, to the administration's refusal to cooperate with various investigations, to the Patriot Act, Specter calls the President's abuse of signing statements, "a challenge to the plain language of the Constitution."
David Golove, a New York University law professor, says that the practice "means that the administration does not feel bound to enforce many new laws which Congress has passed... This raises profound rule of law concerns. Do we have a functioning code of federal laws?"
No functioning code of law? The President can do whatever he wants, regardless of what Congress, the law, the Constitution, or the American people want or say? The President can collect data and spy on ordinary citizens without warrants or court oversight? Maybe these jokes about Bush wanting to be an absolute dictator aren't so damn funny after all.
Tags: Bush, signing statements, Arlen Specter, abuse of power, constitution, rule of law, dictatorship