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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Signing away the law

BEYOND the abandonment of fiscal prudence, the most significant ideological divergence by President Bush from traditional principles held by his Republican predecessors is a dangerously fast and loose approach to the rule of law.

Quietly but with an apparently well-mapped plan, Mr. Bush is establishing himself as the arbiter of which laws passed by Congress will be enforced and which may be interpreted differently or even ignored.

He has done so via so-called "signing statements" issued by the White House after enactment of some 750 new laws over the past five years, far more than any other president in American history.

The statements, which come outside the public spotlight of bill-signing ceremonies, carry the clear implication that Mr. Bush disagrees with the intent of - and may not enforce - a variety of laws, including measures circumscribing domestic spying, military regulations on torture and other matters, and whistleblower statutes to protect federal employees.

While some apologists for the administration contend that Mr. Bush is merely "reserving his rights" and is not ignoring the laws, the action looks like a deliberate presidential power grab.

Indeed, one of the stated goals of Vice President Cheney and the neoconservatives who inhabit the back halls of the White House and federal government is to reassert the authority of the presidency, which they believe has waned since the Vietnam War era. One symptom of that effort: Mr. Bush's declaration of the right of pre-emptive war in U.S. foreign policy.

In the process, however, they threaten to skew the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution, which has worked with great success for more than 200 years. That system fares best when the President and leaders of Congress are of different parties, but it falters with the one-party rule that now grips Washington.

Rather than veto legislation he doesn't like, Mr. Bush has become the first president to never veto a bill this far into a second term in the White House. Instead, his signing statements say that he will execute the laws "in a manner consistent with" his executive authority, or federal law, or the Constitution.

His fellow Republicans, who control Congress, haven't dared to challenge him, and challenges from a friendly Supreme Court have been scarce.

Avoiding outside review of the President's actions is a particularly troublesome tactic because it implies that the occupant of the Oval Office - not Congress or the courts - has unilateral power to say what the law is.

That is not the way the system is supposed to work, as recent history shows.

After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency amid the Watergate scandal of 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, declared, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men."

If George W. Bush has his way, the rule of law may well be discarded and the nightmare of unchecked autocratic power just beginning.



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