Editorial: Bush's hubris (Times Argus)

When President Bush signed the defense appropriations bill earlier this week, he again engaged in the dubious practice of including "signing statements" that effectively nullify those parts of the bill that he doesn't like.

Only Charlie Savage, a Boston Globe reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his exclusive coverage of Bush's embrace of this tactic, initially drew attention to this latest example. The media largely overlooked it until the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin cited Savage's report on Wednesday.

"President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill," Savage wrote. "Bush made the assertion in a signing statement that he issued late Monday after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008. In the signing statement, Bush asserted that four sections of the bill unconstitutionally infringe on his powers, and so the executive branch is not bound to obey them."

One section of the bill passed by Congress - which, under our Constitution, has the sole authority to appropriate funds - states that no money allocated in the bill "may be obligated or expended for a purpose as follows: (1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq. (2) To exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

Bush could have vetoed the entire bill, but that would have set off a political firestorm. The president wrote that the several sections he found offensive "purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as Commander in Chief."

Taken out of context, those are noble-sounding words, but legal experts who do not serve at the president's pleasure take an altogether different view and the Globe's Savage interviewed some of them.

"Congress clearly has the authority to enact this limitation of the expenditure of funds for permanent bases in Iraq," Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor (and head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration), told him.

Phillip Cooper, a political science professor at Portland State University, told Savage the vague language of the president's statements "itself is a problem (because) it is very hard for Congress or the American people to figure out what is supposed to happen and what the implications of this are."

Sen. Jim Webb, the Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation to establish a commission to investigate military contracts, was dismayed that his provision was among those the president so blithely nullified.

"I am at a total loss here," Webb acknowledged. "I am amazed to see this kind of language employed with respect to this legislation. The commission was put into place with broad bipartisan and bicameral support, with the intention of studying systemic problems. I would think that these are the sorts of problems that this president would want to root out." But Bush believes he's never wrong, that history will vindicate him. So to him it matters not what Constitutional experts say or what Congress says or how a majority of the American people feel. What matters to him, it appears, is that his successors - and the people - be saddled with the grim consequences of his leadership.