President Bush is notorious for issuing statements taking exception to hundreds of bills as he signs them. This week, we learned that in a shocking number of cases, the Bush administration has refused to enact those laws. Congress should use its powers to insist that its laws are obeyed.
The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, investigated 19 provisions to which Mr. Bush objected. It found that six of them, or nearly a third, have not been implemented as the law requires. The G.A.O. did not investigate some of the most infamous signing statements, like the challenge to a ban on torture. But the ones it looked into are disturbing enough.
In one case, Congress directed the Pentagon in its 2007 budget request to account separately for the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a perfectly appropriate request, but Mr. Bush issued a signing statement critical of the rule, and the Pentagon withheld the information. In two other cases, federal agencies ignored laws requiring them to get permission from Congressional committees before taking particular actions.
The Bush administration's disregard for these laws is part of its extraordinary theory of the "unitary executive." The administration asserts that the president has the sole authority to supervise and direct executive officers, and that Congress and the courts cannot interfere. This theory, which has no support in American history or the Constitution, is a formula for autocracy.
Other presidents have issued signing statements, but none has issued as many, or done so with the same contemptuous attitude toward the co-equal branches of government. The G.A.O. report makes clear that Mr. Bush's signing statements were virtually written instructions to executive agencies to flout acts of Congress. Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, has said that the report shows that Mr. Bush "is constantly grabbing for more power" and trying to push Congress "to the sidelines."
Members of Congress have a variety of methods available to make the administration obey the law. They should call the agency heads up to Capitol Hill to explain their intransigence. And they should use the power of the purse, the authority the founders wisely vested in the people's branch, as a check on a runaway executive branch.
When the Bush presidency ends, there will be a great deal of damage to repair, much of it to the Constitutional system. Congress should begin now to restore the principle that even the president and those who work for him are not above the law.