A signing statement is an as an official pronouncement issued by the President of the United States when signing a bill into a law. The history of signing statements goes back to the 19th century. However, American presidents started using this provision actively only in the modern era, to demonstrate their views on the law and uphold presidential power and authority. This essay aims to demonstrate a brief history of signing statements in the United States and present a critical opinion about this practice.
From Andrew Jackson to Obama
Article 1 of the Constitution says that the President “shall sign” the bill they approve and veto the bill they do not approve by returning it to the House with proper Objections. Kelley and Marshall (2008) argue that while some historians of law credit Andrew Jackson for being the first President to use the signing statement, most of them agree that the first President to issue a signing statement to exercise his power and to reject a law was James Monroe. Nevertheless, a strategic use of this mechanism only started with the Reagan presidency. During his presidency, Reagan issued 250 signing statements, with 86 of them openly disapproving certain provisions (Congressional Research Service, 2012). His administration wanted to leave an everlasting impact on American politics. However, there were some barriers his administration had to overcome in order to make it happen.
The administration of President George H.W. Bush continued to use signing statements. During his presidency, he issued 228 signing statements, in 107 of which he raised legal criticisms (Congressional Research Service, 2012). One of the issues that the Bush Sr. Administration was preoccupied the most was the protection of presidential authority. His administration continued to use signing statements as a tool of influence on perceptions of the bill. Nevertheless, it is hard to say if these efforts were successful or not. Hundreds of signing statements have been issued since Andrew Jackson but only recently this topic has become a center of a heated political debate.
President Bush issued only 161 signing statements which is marginally smaller than the 381 statements of the Clinton presidency a decade earlier (Congressional Research Service, 2012). However, the nature of the statements slightly changed which resulted American Bar Association to examine the legality of this practice. The problem with the statements was that it was a threat to American system of checks and balances. Despite publicly criticizing this practice, President Obama continued to use signing statements to voice constitutionals objections. It is important to mention that the Obama Administration used this mechanism less frequently comparing to the prior administrations.
Criticism of the Provision
Signing statements are controversial, facing negative Congressional response, including committee hearings and public outcry, largely leading to the decrease of signing statements over the years (Sievert & Ostrander, 2017). Another group of critics believe that this phenomenon has a negative effect on the balance of powers. For example, Pres. Trump of the current administration has significantly politicized signing statements, arguably more than any other administration, and it is seen by political scholars as another mechanism of his publicly displayed influence on the Republican base and Congress members. However, President’s ability to give a broad interpretation, to refuse or object a bill or a statute, to send a law for a judicial review is the very definition of the balance of powers. Such as, Pres. Obama used the signing statement on the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to comment on the unconstitutionality of the notification provision that he later went on to bypass with an executive order (Tumulty, 2014). Bradley and Posner (2006) argue that both positions have valid foundations, however, the support this practice. They say that if it is proper for Presidents at least sometimes to refuse statutes, then it cannot be made illegal.
Signing statements are a controversial tool used by presidents. Together with the signing of a bill into a law, it has become a platform for presidents to give their comments on the law and to interpret the language of the law. It has a rich history stemming back to early U.S. presidents, but has become more significant in modern day in the light of widespread media coverage, making signing statements a largely political proclamation.
Bradley, C., & Posner, E. (2006). Presidential signing statements and executive power. Constitutional Commentary, 23(3), 307-364.
Congressional Research Service. (2012). Presidential signing statements: Constitutional and institutional implications.
Kelley, C., & Marshall, B. (2008). The last word: Presidential power and the role of signing statements. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38(2), 248-267.
Sievert, J., & Ostrander, I. (2017). Constraining presidential ambition: Controversy and the decline of signing statements. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 47(4), 752–776. Web.
Tumulty, K. (2014). Obama circumvents laws with ‘signing statements,’ a tool he promised to use lightly. The Washington Post. Web.