I turn 23 in about a month, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s not the encroaching specter of unambiguous adulthood that titillates me, but rather the raw number itself. Past experience has suggested good returns for ages where I’ve already an affinity for the number (17 and 21).
Thing is, I’m also saddled with a bit of trepidation going into this year. Ouija boards, Magic 8 Balls and blogs alike are all pointing to 2006-2007 being one of those tumultuous, watershed periods in United States history. The twilight of the Bush administration is looming over my twenty-third year like a red sky at morning.
I can hear you now. “Come off it, you fear-mongering, liberal hack. Peddle your pointless prognostications to someone who cares. Bush, saddled with a gutted party majority and collapsing public opinion, will live out his last years as the lamest of lame ducks. What could he possibly do to warrant another Soros-wanking fluff piece?”
Plenty, me thinks. The administration has spent the last six years building itself a gilded Executive Branch skycastle—a vimāna from which it can impudently hurl pronouncements, free of those meddling kids in the Legislative and Judicial Branches.
Case in point, courtesy of Friday’s Boston Globe: on Wednesday, Bush signed a new homeland security bill containing, among other things, provisions designed by Congress to revamp the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A significant portion of the Katrina fallout blame fell squarely on the shoulders of former FEMA director Michael Brown, a cronyism-heavy Bush appointee with no emergency management experience. Not surprising, then, that Wednesday’s bill explicated stringent qualifications for future FEMA directors— among them, “a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management.”
Bush was all smiles and praise Wednesday morning as he signed the bill into law. The White House press office pimped the legislation widely, promoting it as the latest set of tools permitting US citizens placid, pacific sleep. The press office then bid its time until 8 p.m. that evening— well after most reporters had left— and quietly released the signing statement.
A signing statement is a presidential proclamation accompanying the promulgation of a new piece of legislation. It can run the gamut from congratulatory praise to registered disappointment. In Wednesday’s case, it announced the administration’s intent to wholesale ignore the FEMA director qualifications clause. The administration’s argument? By limiting the president’s candidate pool, Congress had violated his Constitutional right to independent personnel decisions.
Seems a little extreme, huh? Surely, such a violent trumping of checks and balances would be reserved for the most extreme of situations.
You wish. The qualification clause was just one of over three dozen laws challenged in Wednesday’s signing statement— par for the course for an administration establishing an extremely discomforting new take on Legislative-Executive relations.
Once upon a time, signing statements were mostly confined to the dustbin of masturbatory praise or commentary. In the two hundred-odd years of the Grand Republic leading up to the Gipper, a grand total of 75 were issued.
Like so much else wrong with the country these days, Reagan can be thanked for getting the ball rolling on the modern signing statement, being the first to really use them as a Quasi-Constitutional Weapon of Mass Obfuscation. According to Slate, his vice-president-cum-successor, Bush the Elder, managed to challenge 232 statutes in his four short years in office. Slick Willie managed a conservative 140 challenges in his two terms.
How does Dubya stack up? Terrifyingly well. In his six years at the helm, as the Boston Globe has it, Bush has challenged in excess of 800 laws. Bush has effectively turned the signing statement into a supra-Constitutional line-item veto—line-item vetoes, of course, having been explicitly forbidden in 1998’s Clinton v. City of New York.
In actuality, signing statements are in many senses the preferred option for a power-hungry Executive branch. Since their legal power isn’t really enshrined anywhere, signing statements lack any sort of override option for a slighted legislative branch— vetoes, on the other hand, can always be overturned by a Congressional supermajority. With no oversight in place, signing statements become an unbeatable trump card; rock beats scissors and paper both, every time.
The current administration’s signing statement binge had been mostly treated as a dirty little family secret until earlier this year, when it was used to totally emasculate John McCain’s anti-torture legislation. That brazen act led to the Globe’s investigative piece, which in turn led to the American Bar Association forming a non-partisan task force to investigate the practice. The ABA’s task force came back July 24 with a verbal tongue lashing for the administration— the sort of vitriolic put-down producible only by lawyers. Two days later, Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvanian Republican, introduced a bill to cut signing statements off at the knees.
Specter’s bill would instruct state and federal courts to totally disregard signing statements as a “source of authority,” while simultaneously instructing the Supreme Court to allow Congress to file a suit regarding the constitutionality of the process in the first place. The bill (S.3731 for you THOMAS fans) has since languished in committee purgatory, shelved for more important matters like steroids and Mark Foley.
Lots of folks will tell you the administration’s final years will be marked by impotence—that, flanked by a Grand Old Party eviscerated in the midterms (knock on wood), Bush & Co. will find themselves incapable of actualizing their New American Century goals. I respectfully and quiveringly disagree. The signing statement salvo is but one example of the utter disregard the administration has shown for conventional national power structures— a contempt most of us associate more with their approach towards global politics. If the midterms are the Democratic Điện Biên Phủ some pundits are anticipating, Bush could find himself in a position where he feels no obligation to avoid besmirching the name of his party. The recent order to ready AEGIS cruisers and minesweepers for deployment to the Iranian coast could only be a harbinger of things to come. Free of the requisite nominal lip service to his party posse, Bush could decide he’s free to act as the reckless rogue agent we left-wing windbags have accused him of being for the first three-fourths of his term— in which case, it’s 23 skidoo for me.