signing statement, written comment issued by the executive of a government when signing a bill into law. In the United States, such statements have traditionally been comparatively neutral declarations commenting on a piece of legislation in one of several ways: addressing the needs a given law serves, instructing subordinates on its implementation, making favorable comments, or disagreeing with a portion of the law. Signing statements have been used by presidents at least as far back as Andrew Jackson; some contend that James Monroe issued similar opinions. Occasionally presidents have, through signing statements, asserted their ability to disregard provisions of a law of which they disapproved or which they deemed unconstitutional. There was a considerable increase in the number of signing statements issued during the Reagan administration, a time in which these devices began to be used by the president to shape and influence laws and thus expand presidential power. All subsequent presidents, particularly Bill Clinton, have also issued many of these statements.
Signing statements did not generally become controversial, however, until the presidency of George W. Bush, who raised constitutional objections to more than 1,100 provisions of 160 pieces of legislation. In doing so, Bush contended that the president has the right not to enforce provisions of a law that he believes conflict with the Constitution. While Justice Dept. officials have upheld the legality of signing statements, many citizens, legislators, and legal scholars objected, asserting that signing statements amount to illegal line-item vetoes (see veto) that Congress cannot override. In mid-2006 a bipartisan panel of the American Bar Association condemned President Bush's use of signing statements, maintaining that they often flouted the constitutional separation of powers, undermined the rule of law, and set a potentially harmful precedent. A 2007 study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office was also critical of Bush's signing statements, stating that they had been employed to circumvent numerous laws. The opinions of the ABA and GAO did not alter the use of signing statements by President Bush, and the issue remains one of the most contentious of the Bush administration.
See P. J. Cooper, By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action (2002).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.