Presidential signing statements

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Presidential signing statements are proclamations added by the President of the United States to pieces of legislation he signs indicating how he intends to interperet and enforce it.

Signing statements in history

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution which mandates or suggests that a president issue any statement upon signing a bill presented by the U.S. Congress. Such a requirement applies only when a president vetoes a bill, as the Constitution asks that he clarify his objections so that Congress can consider them. Nevertheless, presidents have issued statements elaborating on their views regarding signed legislation since President James Monroe, the nation’s fifth chief-executive. In his case, Monroe signed a bill which mandated a reduction in the size of the army and prescribed the method by which the president should select military officers. A month following the signing, he issued a statement declaring that the president, not Congress, possessed the constitutional authority of appointing military officers.

For the remainder of the nineteenth century, signing statements were used sparingly. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed an appropriations bill providing for a road from Detroit to Chicago, but issued a statement insisting that the road involved was not to extend beyond Michigan. The U.S. House of Representatives vigorously objected to the statement, but ultimately honored Jackson's wishes.

Signing statements began to play a bigger role in the early twentieth century. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed his intention to ignore a restriction on his power to establish volunteer commissions in a signing statement. Several years later, President Woodrow Wilson openly declared that a piece of legislation he signed violated 32 treaties, something he refused to do.

In 1959, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed the Mutual Security Act, but stated, “I have signed this bill on the express promise that the three amendments relating to disclosure are not intended to alter and cannot alter the Constitutional duty and power of the Executive with respect to the disclosure of information, documents and other materials. Indeed any other construction of these amendments would raise grave constitutional questions under the historic Separation of Powers Doctrine.” In other words, Eisenhower was willing only to enforce the bill to the extent that it did not infringe on his perception of executive authority. Twelve years later, President Richard Nixon objected to a 1971 military authorization bill which set a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Indochina. He noted that bill was, “without binding force or effect.”

The Administration of Ronald Reagan brought about a dramatic increase in the frequency of presidential signing statements. Reagan saw the statements as a strategic tool for molding and influencing the way legislation was interpreted by Executive agencies. In eight years as president, Reagan issued statements which objected to 72 congressional provisions, a record at the time. His successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, easily topped that mark in only four years in the White House. Bush objected to 232 provisions, with a third relating to foreign policy. President Bill Clinton followed with 140 objections in eight years, with over half relating to foreign affairs.[1]

Presidential signing statements by George W. Bush

Through July 11, 2006, George W. Bush had objected to 807 provisions in 5 1/2 years as president. As the graph below indicates, this figure dwarfs that of any other president in U.S. history. In fact, it is greater than all previous forty-one presidents combined, who totaled slightly less than 600. Both the frequency and tone of Bush's statements have been the cause of much controversy.[2]

On July 24, 2006, the American Bar Association (ABA) issued the report of a Blue-Ribbon Task Force on Bush's signing statements that concluded:

"Presidential signing statements that assert President Bush’s authority to disregard or decline to enforce laws adopted by Congress undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers... To address these concerns, the task force urges Congress to adopt legislation enabling its members to seek court review of signing statements that assert the President’s right to ignore or not enforce laws passed by Congress, and urges the President to veto bills he feels are not constitutional."[3]


  • Source: "The American Bar Association Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Power Doctrine," 07/24/2006.

Congressional efforts to restrict signing statements

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced the Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2006 on July 26, 2006.[4] The bill would:

  1. Instruct all state and federal courts to ignore presidential signing statements. ("No State or Federal court shall rely on or defer to a presidential signing statement as a source of authority.")
  2. Instruct the Supreme Court to allow the U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives to file suit in order to determine the constitutionality of signing statements.[5]

The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Specter chairs, on the day it was introduced.[6]

<USbillinfo congress="109" bill="S.3731" />

Congressional support and opposition to the Presidential Signing Statements Act

Support and opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee

Name Party Affiliation State Position
Joe Biden Democrat Delaware Unknown*
Sam Brownback Republican Kansas Unknown*
Tom Coburn Republican Oklahoma Unknown*
John Cornyn Republican Texas Opposes (details below)
Mike DeWine Republican Ohio Uncommitted (details below)
Richard Durbin Democrat Illinois Unknown*
Russ Feingold Democrat Wisconsin Supports (details below)
Dianne Feinstein Democrat California Supports (details below)
Lindsey Graham Republican South Carolina Unknown*
Charles Grassley Republican Iowa Unknown*
Orrin Hatch Republican Utah Unknown*
Ted Kennedy Democrat Massachusetts Supports (details below)
Herb Kohl Democrat Wisconsin Uncommitted (details below)
Jon Kyl Republican Arizona Unknown*
Patrick Leahy Democrat Vermont Supports (details below)
Chuck Schumer Democrat New York Unknown*
Jeff Sessions Republican Alabama Opposes (details below)
Arlen Specter (sponsor) Republican Pennsylvania Supports

Supporters: all

  1. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said, “I don’t think signing statements should be used to thwart the will of Congress or to undermine the laws that we pass.”[7]
  2. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said, "This unprecedented use of so-called constitutional signing statements raises very serious concerns, and I am glad that this Committee is taking the time to examine it closely."[8]
  3. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, "I believe that this new use of signing statements is a means to undermine and weaken the law...If the president is going to have the power to nullify all or part of a statute, it should only be through veto authority that the president has authorized and can reject — rather than through a unilateral action taken outside the structures of our democracy."[9]
  4. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "For far too long, Congress has stood by and watched while President Bush has slowly expanded the unilateral powers of the Presidency at the expense of the rest of the government and the people. From secret military tribunals, to indefinite detentions at Guantanamo, to illegal wiretapping, the President consistently shows a casual disregard for the rights of Congress and the courts to make and interpret the law. This hearing is one step toward reclaiming our responsibilities, and I commend Senator Specter for his leadership on this issue."[10]
  5. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, "I have long objected to this President’s broad use of signing statements to try to rewrite the laws crafted and passed by the Congress, because I firmly believe that this practice poses a grave threat to our constitutional system of checks and balances."[11]

Opponents: all

  1. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, "I don’t see what the problem is."[12]
  2. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said in response to the Act: "We do not need more litigation in the courts."[13]
  3. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that signing statements are an important way for the President to clarify legislation and stated that the Act would "transfer the power to the courts, and throws the courts directly between the Congress and the president."[14]

Uncommitted: all

  1. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) [Source: Interview with Congresspedia, August 22, 2006]
  2. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) declined to support the Act, stating, "I think the president will enforce the law."[15]
  3. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) opposed the signing statement issued by Bush on the Congressional torture ban in the 2006 defense authorization bill, but stopped short of supporting the Act, stating, "It’s confusing... You have a signing, the culmination of a deliberative process. Then, to quote the old biblical phrase, the Lord giveth with one hand, and taketh from the other.”[16]
  4. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) did not directly support or oppose the bill in a letter from his office to a constituent.[17]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Power Doctrine, Recommendation and Report, American Bar Association, July 24, 2006.
  2. Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Power Doctrine, Recommendation and Report, American Bar Association, July 24, 2006.
  3. Press Release: Blue-Ribbon Task Force Finds President Bush's Signing Statements Undermine Separation of Powers, American Bar Association, July 24, 2006.
  4. THOMAS: S.3731, Library of Congress.
  5. THOMAS: S.3731, Library of Congress.
  6. THOMAS: S.3731, Library of Congress.
  7. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  8. Russ Feingold, Statement: Senate Committee on the Judiciary Hearing On "Presidential Signing Statements," Office of Senator Russ Feingold, June 27, 2006.
  9. "Bush 'Signing Statements' Questioned," Associated Press (via CBS News), July 27, 2006.
  10. Edward Kennedy, Press Release: Statement by Senator Edward M. Kennedy on Presidential Signing Statements, Office of Senator Edward Kennedy, June 27, 2006.
  11. Partick Leahy, Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy: Hearing on Presidential Signing Statements, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, June 27, 2006.
  12. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  13. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  14. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  15. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  16. Alan K. Ota, "Few Republicans Back Specter Bid to Curb Bush’s Use of Signing Statements," CQ, July 25, 2006.
  17. Mike DeWine, Letter to constituents on signing statements, Office of Senator Mike DeWine, August 22, 2006.

External resources

External articles