Every word is stolen from Laurie R. King's blog. A great blog, by the way. And a great writer.
Andrew Sullivan’s essays at the back of TIME magazine are often the best part of the whole 75 pages. A week or so ago (Jan 23) he wrote “We Don’t Need a New King George”, which you can access, sort of, on the TIME web site. But since it appears to need a subscription, here’s part of it, retyped for you by my very own hard-working fingers. It concerns a little-known (at least, until this inhabitant of the White House) attachment to new laws called a “signing statement,” in which the President, when unable to veto a law because of the number of votes by which it has passed, is able to attach a sort of minority report which says, in effect, that he has no intention of actually obeying this law he’s just signed.
Now, I may be wrong, but as I remember my high school civics lessons, the president is the head of the executive branch, not the legislative, not the judicial. He is sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He executes laws, he does not make them. However, in this looking-glass presidency, I appear to be mistaken about this.
In his essay, Sullivan is talking about the McCain anti-torture amendment, which passed by enormous veto-proof majorities in both House and Senate:
“So Bush backed down, embraced McCain and signed it. The debate was over, right? That’s how our democracy works, right?
“Not according to this President. Although the meaning of the law was crystal clear and the Constitution says Congress has the exclusive power to ‘make rules concerning Captures on Land and Water,’ Bush demurred.
“He issued a signing statement that read, ‘The executive branch shall constitute Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power.’
“Translation: If the President believes torture is warranted to protect the country, he’ll violate the law and authorize torture. If the courts try to stop him, he’ll ignore them, too. This wasn’t quibbling or spinning. Like the old English kings who insisted that Parliament could not tell them what to do, Bush all but declared himself above a law he signed. One professor who specializes in this constitutional area, Phillip J. Cooper of Portland State University in Oregon, has described the power grabs as ‘breathtaking.’”
Sullivan concludes, “A President, Democrat or Republican, has every right to act unilaterally at times to defend the country. But a democracy cannot work if the person who is deputed to execute the laws exempts himself from them when he feels like it. Forget the imperial presidency. This is more like a monarchical one. America began by rejecting the claims of one King George. It’s disturbing to think we may now be quietly installing a second one.”