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June, 2006

Bush Picks And Chooses The Law
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri, AlterNet

The fact that Bush wants to rule as something like a dictator is nothing new. Heck, he even said it himself. But a startling new article in Sunday's Boston Globe shows just how far he's already taken his wish: Bush has reserved the right to ignore as many as 750 laws passed by Congress during his presidency.
In the piece, Charlie Savage provides a rundown of how President Bush has used signing statements in lieu of the presidential veto. In contrast to Bush The First's 232 such challenges, and Clinton's 140, George W. has challenged 750 new laws in this manner.

The effects? Jack Balkin over at Balkinization neatly sums them up for us: The signing statements enable the president to pick certain portions of legislation that he doesn't fancy, undermining the will of Congress without any public accountability or effective recourse from Congress or the courts. George W.'s allergy to vetoes smack of a specific intent to avoid public scrutiny of his interpretation of the constitution. As Balkin writes,

The Bush Administration didn't want Congress regulating how it treated prisoners, regarding any such interventions as unconstitutional; at the same time, it didn't want the courts deciding the question of constitutionality either. It simply wanted to be free of legal obligations or responsibilities in this area other than those that it choose for itself.

While a presidential veto would require Congress to weigh in, and change the law if it appeared to be unconstitutional, those 750 signing statements are an effective way of influencing future legislation without facing any oversight.

The law is constantly subject to interpretation -- and signing statements have import in future readings of congressional intent. That means that these the president's willful misinterpretation of Congress (case in point: President Bush's claim that the Authorization to Use Military force -- AUMF -- allows the president to illegally wiretap and search Americans) can impact future court rulings, long after Bush is out of office.

While it's tempting for those opposed to this president to continually ask, "How can he get away with that?" the answer is deceptively simple: because he thinks he can.

As journalist Robert Scheer noted in a recent interview with AlterNet,

These guys are… far worse than the Nixon crowd because they think they can get away with it. Nixon, at the end of the day thought it mattered what the New York Times said. He felt that if there was a big contradiction, a big error, they would catch him and there would be all hell to pay.

But it's not just the specter of the public and press that normally keeps executive power in check: Our political system relies on each branch exercising self-restraint. Fear of and respect for the other branches of government has long provided a more conservative exercise of power. But as Cheney has made explicitly clear, this administration is interested in expanding executive power, not restraining it.

The resulting contradictions between the will of Congress and that of the president have led to mixed messages for those undertaken with the responsibility to apply the law. Detainee abuse is a prime example. It was Donald Rumsfeld and his aides that penned and approved the memos stating that interrogation techniques tantamount to torture were legal. Interesting, then, that recent Army criminal charges have just been filed against the second-in-command or interrogations at Abu Ghraib -- Lt. Col. Steven Jordan. The accusation? "Cruelty and mistreatment" -- the very same cruelty and mistreatment (use of dogs and forced nudity) explicitly approved by Rumsfeld.

So while we have the Army acknowledging that interrogation behavior that Rumsfeld approved is illegal, the administration defends its actions by cowering under the president's umbrella assertion that laws only need to be abided by when they do not impede his "constitutional authority." By scuttling what he believes his constitutional authority to be through courts and outside of Congressional oversight, President Bush is able to keep those claims to power broad and ambiguous. The good news is that, as we see cases like Steven Jordan's unfold, such contradictions in the application of law must necessarily be addressed.

Articles like Savage's are critical in bringing attention, not only to President Bush's abuse of the law, but to the continued expansion of executive power that has occurred under his watch. Without a push back from the other branches of government, the path is paved for future presidents, regardless of their politics, to single-handedly interpret the Constitution any way they see fit.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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