WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers say they plan to dig deeper into the administration's use of bill-signing statements as a way to circumvent congressional intent.
In a limited examination of the Bush administration's practice of reserving the authority to interpret legislation, the Government Accountability Office determined that in six out of 19 cases it studied, the administration did not follow the law as written after President Bush expressed reservations about some legislative directives. By using signing statements, the president has reserved the right not to enforce any laws he thinks violate the Constitution or national security, or that impair foreign relations.
The government watchdog agency, in a report issued Monday, did not pass judgment on whether the president had the constitutional authority not to comply. But congressional officials said yesterday that the findings were alarming because the administration had apparently not complied with the law in 30 percent of the cases scrutinized.
"Federal law is not some buffet line where the president can pick parts of some laws to follow and others to reject," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, one of two senior Democratic lawmakers who sought the review.
Byrd and aides to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan said their next step would be to explore the signing statements more closely to determine the broad extent of their impact. Byrd noted that the Congressional Research Service had identified 700 provisions in law questioned by the administration.
"I plan to ask auditors to take a look at these provisions and determine what legal violations they find," Byrd said. "Once we have the facts, we will be able to determine the next steps."
The Bush administration's frequent use of signing statements has been one front in the battle between the White House and some in Congress over the power of the executive branch.
Administration officials said that it was fully within the president's power to interpret how laws should be carried out by the executive branch and that the White House had acted appropriately to keep Congress from overreaching and meddling too much in the independent executive branch of government.
"The executive branch has an obligation to remain within constitutional limits," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "The point of the signing statement is to advise where the executive sees those limits."
The GAO said signing statements date back to the 19th century and might have started with President Andrew Jackson's declaration that a road Congress wanted built from Detroit to Chicago would not extend beyond Michigan.
Byrd and Conyers cited a CRS finding in April that the Bush administration had made use of the statements to raise objections to provisions of the laws he was signing to a much greater extent than any of his predecessors. Critics said Bush was relying on the statements to avoid veto fights with Congress, even when it was under Republican control, while still killing provisions he found objectionable.
The GAO said Bush had cited an array of rationales in objecting to aspects of the laws in question, some related to his power as commander in chief and others related to his role as chief executive. In reviewing 19 provisions cited in signing statements, investigators found 10 were carried out as expected and six were not; in three others, the provisions were moot.