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Presidential Signing Statements: Constitutional and Institutional Implications

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Publication Date: September 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33667

Topic: Government (Executive power)


Presidential signing statements are official pronouncements issued by the President contemporaneously to the signing of a bill into law that, in addition to commenting on the law generally, have been used to forward the President's interpretation of the statutory language; to assert constitutional objections to the provisions contained therein; and, concordantly, to announce that the provisions of the law will be administered in a manner that comports with the Administration's conception of the President's constitutional prerogatives. While the history of presidential issuance of signing statements dates to the early 19th century, the practice has become the source of significant controversy in the modern era as Presidents have increasingly employed the statements to assert constitutional objections to congressional enactments. President Reagan initiated this practice in earnest, transforming the signing statement into a mechanism for the assertion of presidential authority and intent.

President Reagan issued 276 signing statements, 71 of which (26%) contained provisions questioning the constitutionality of one or more of the statutory provisions signed into law. President George H. W. Bush continued this practice, issuing 214 signing statements, 146 of which (68%) raised constitutional objections. President Clinton's conception of presidential power proved to be largely consonant with that of the preceding two administrations. In turn, President Clinton made aggressive use of the signing statement, issuing 391 statements, 105 of which (27%) raised constitutional concerns or objections. President George W. Bush has continued this practice, issuing 149 signing statements, 127 of which (85%) contain some type of constitutional challenge or objection. The significant rise in the proportion of constitutional objections made by the President Bush is compounded by the fact that these statements are typified by multiple objections, resulting in over 700 challenges to distinct provisions of law. The number and scope of such assertions in the George W. Bush Administration has given rise to extensive debate over the issuance of signing statements, with the American Bar Association (ABA) recently publishing a report declaring that these instruments are "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers" when they "claim the authority or state the intention to disregard or decline to enforce all or part of a law...or to interpret such a law in a manner inconsistent with the clear intent of Congress."

However, in analyzing the constitutional basis for, and legal effect of, presidential signing statements, it becomes apparent that no constitutional or legal deficiencies adhere to the issuance of such statements in and of themselves. Rather, it appears that the appropriate focus of inquiry in this context is on the assertions of presidential authority contained therein, coupled with an examination of substantive executive action taken or forborne with regard to the provisions of law implicated in a presidential signing statement.

Applying this analytical rubric to the current controversy, it seems evident that the issues involved center not on the simple issue of signing statements, but rather on the view of presidential authority that governs the substantive actions of the Administration in question. This report focuses on the use of signing statements by recent Administrations, with particular emphasis on the current Administration and legislative proposals to regulate the use and issuance of signing statements.