Over on The Huffington Post, Mark Kleiman called it a move towards "a claim of dictatorial powers." I'm willing to call it chutzpah, particularly since it bumps President George W. Bush's count up to seven Chutzpah of the Week awards (and to think that he got his sixth only at the beginning of this month, which turned out to be a seriously chutzpah-laden month)! "It" is his latest signing statement; and we have to wonder whether or not he has decided to react to the media labeling him a lame duck with the what-the-hell attitude that has less to do with dictatorship and more to do with doing anything he damned well pleases without worrying about consequences. The account of this particular signing statement can be found on the Web site for The Boston Globe in a story filed by Charlie Savage. Here is his lead:
President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent US military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill.
Bush made the assertion in a signing statement that he issued late Monday after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008. In the signing statement, Bush asserted that four sections of the bill unconstitutionally infringe on his powers, and so the executive branch is not bound to obey them.
"Provisions of the act . . . purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as commander in chief," Bush said. "The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President."
One section Bush targeted created a statute that forbids spending taxpayer money "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."
That third paragraph is the mother-lode of the chutzpah in this story. It is also a sobering reminder that, while the text of the President's Oath of Office talks about preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States, is says nothing about reading that document! Fortunately, on his own blog Kleiman has saved me the trouble of unpacking the text of the Constitution in this particular matter, applying my favorite strategy of citing chapter and verse. (With all of his professions of faith, you would think that Bush can do this sort of thing with his Bible; why can't he do it with the Constitution? My guess is that those professions of faith have little, if anything, to do with the Bible but are grounded, instead, on his direct communion with his God. This means he is not obliged to read anything, even his Bible!)
Of course we have been aware of the Presidential preference for signing statements for some time, so we knew that one of these would land him a chutzpah award sooner or later. If there is any good news about this, it is that the general public is more aware of signing statements than they ever were under any previous administration. This led Savage to close up his story with two interesting paragraphs. The first is a positive consequence of this increased awareness:
In 2006, the American Bar Association condemned signing statements as "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers."
The second involves another positive consequence, which is that the awareness has trickled into the current race for the White House:
Among the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama have said they would issue signing statements if elected. John McCain said he would not.
I find this particularly interesting, since the media like to jump on McCain whenever he starts talking about war. After his failed rendition of "Barbara Ann" made him look like a clown, the general tendency has shifted to portraying him as a bloodthirsty warlord. Yet here he is, the only one of the "four survivors" willing to declare that he does not want to get his way by slipping through legal loopholes. Perhaps he sincerely saw his military service as an act of defending that Constitution, and perhaps he sees his service in the Senate in exactly the same light. I still believe that the first step in getting out of a mess is to understand clearly how you got into it in the first place; and just maybe McCain has a leg up on that first step compared to the other three contenders not yet "voted off the island."