Report: Bush “Signing Statements” May Have Affected Implementation of Laws

President Bush has claimed that his executive powers allow him to bypass more than 1,100 laws enacted since he took office — in what are called “signing statements.” But what has been unclear ever since The Boston Globe‘s landmark story on the statements (which won Charlie Savage a Pulitzer) is just what effect these obscure little statements, published in the federal register, have.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) wanted to know just that, so they asked for an analysis by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, of last year’s appropriations bills. The report, released today, is sure to lead to further investigation.

The agency examined a sample of appropriations bills from last year, focusing on 19 provisions that were affected by a presidential signing statement added to a bill — in each case, Bush invoked the “unitary executive” theory or some other justification for disputing the bill. The result: of the 19 provisions, six were not executed as authorized by Congress.Now, there’s a major asterisk to these findings in the report and that’s this: “Although we found the agencies did not execute the provisions as enacted, we cannot conclude that agency noncompliance was the result of the President’s signing statements.”

In other words, it’s not clear that the agencies disobeyed the law because the president said they could disobey it. And it’s also worth adding that of the six examples cited in the report, none of them have to do with the controversial assertions of presidential power dealing with issues of torture, domestic surveillance, etc.

But the report does strengthen the argument, originally made in Savage’s piece, that bureaucrats might take the president’s word over Congress’ when implementing laws. And in issues as vital as the conduct of special operations, treatment of detainees, and others, that’s a worrisome thought.

Both Conyers and Byrd, reacting to the report, are calling for more digging.

“This study calls for an extensive review of these practices, something the Administration has so far refused to do,” says Conyers.

Sen. Byrd, saying that the “Administration cannot be in the business of cherry picking the laws it likes and the laws it doesn’t,” said that the GAO report “underscores the fact that the Bush White House is constantly grabbing for more power, seeking to drive the people’s branch of government to the sidelines…. We must continue to demand accountability and openness from this White House to counter this power grab.”

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