Paul Greenberg

Other presidents of the United States would on occasion attach statements to their signatures when signing a bill into law; this one has made it a regular habit.

At last count, the Hon. George W. Bush had issued hundreds of such statements to explain his interpretation of the law he was approving at the time - or to express his reservations about it. The reservations usually have to do with maintaining the chief executive's constitutional authority, especially when it comes to matters of national security.

There's plenty of precedent for such statements. As far back as 1830, Andrew Jackson - a patron saint of the Democratic Party - would get a mite tetchy when he felt congressional Whigs were usurping his presidential authority under the Constitution, and would say so.

Wartime tends to heighten such concerns on the part of the executive branch. Especially in a war like this one, which began with a devastating attack on the home front, and in which the enemy remains both nebulous and dangerous.

Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is threatening to have Congress sue the president if he keeps issuing such statements. But on what grounds? Even a president of the United States has a right to free speech. Or doesn't the First Amendment apply to presidents of the United States?

Predictably enough, the American Bar Association sounds peeved, too. Where this president is concerned, it usually does. The ABA was thoroughly politicized some time ago. By now it can be counted on to regularly oppose his politics, judicial nominees, and even his right to make a statement, at least if he attaches it to a bill he's just signed into law.

According to Michael Greco, the bar association's current president, such a statement "hamstrings Congress because Congress cannot respond to a signing statement."

Really? What's stopping it? Instead of suing the president, why doesn't Sen. Specter just issue a statement of his own in rebuttal?

That way, should there be a question about what Congress meant by passing a particular law, or whether the president is doing enough to enforce it, the judiciary can take all of that into consideration if and when such a dispute reaches the courts, as it usually does. (This is called determining intent.)

In any event, whatever statement the president issues on signing a law, he is still obliged under the Constitution "to take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed . . . ." His stating his opinion of the law doesn't relieve him of that duty.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.