What is a Signing Statement?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

When the President of the United States signs a bill into law, he or she has the option of including a signing statement. A signing statement accompanying a law was not used frequently until the late 1980s. Since that time, President Ronald Reagan, President George Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George W. Bush have drafted over 200 signing statements. Prior to Reagan’s presidency, the signing statement was a little used tactic, occurring only 75 times in 200 years of governance.

Frequent use of presidential signing statements began with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Frequent use of presidential signing statements began with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

A signing statement is not prohibited, though it is argued that a signing statement should not be considered as more important than the signed law that accompanies it. However, it can occasionally be a statement regarding how the President intends to interpret the law for his or her own benefit.

For example, President George W. Bush’s signing statement accompanying the 2005 McCain Detainee Act, which bans torture of detained suspects, diminished the law by suggesting that the President would administer the law under his discretion. Often, the signing statement may be one that suggests the law interferes with the Executive powers of the President and thus may be applied only as needed.

In fact, the US President is obliged to include a signing statement if he or she feels that the law in some way negates Presidential powers. Though congress would prefer that laws apply to everyone in the country, and would rather draft a law that will be observed by all, the signing statement may be an argument against the necessity of the President observing the law.

The signing statement is generally applied in one of three ways. It may include a statement that the law goes against the constitutionally defined powers of the executive branch. It may be used to fire up a political party and urge them to act in a certain way. Alternately, it may more specifically define vagaries in the law in the hopes that the signing statement will be used as interpretive by judges who administer the law.

In many cases, the US Supreme Court has declared that a signing statement of a President should not be used to interpret law. Rather, interpretation of law is the goal of the judiciary branch of the government. However, a judge is not bound to ignore a signing statement in adjudicating a case.

Concern about the interference of the executive branch into the province of the legislative branch via signing statements has spawned a bill that would actually negate the potential power of the signing statement. The Presidential Signing Statement Bill proposed in 2006 would forbid judges from considering signing statements as authority. It would also allow the House of Representatives or the Senate to object to the signing statement of a President, and if necessary, sue for the statement to be declared unconstitutional.

Many argue that the signing statement goes against the grain of the balance of power which is supposedly the hallmark of the US government. It should be noted that a member of the President's political party introduced this bill. This is less a partisan issue, and more simply an interpretive issue regarding the extent of the political power held by any one branch of the government.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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