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Presidential signing statements

There’s an interesting article in today’s NY Times entitled, “Presidential Signing Statements, and Alito’s Role in Them, Are Questioned”. It piqued my interest about presidential signing statements, so I tried to find others. Using the exact wording of the NYT article (“Presidential signing statements”), was unsuccessful. GPO Access’ Public Papers of the Presidents gave some access, but only from 1991. What’s worse, there is nothing for the current administration newer than 2002. I found nothing in LexisNexis, and only after a thorough search on whitehouse.gov did I find text there — but not until I remembered the recent govdoc-l thread that described how to find them and Daniel Cornwall’s helpful suggestion of using the phrase “statement on signing.”

[As an aside, I also searched on FindLaw, and found this intriguing article by Jennifer Van Bergen entitled, “The Unitary Executive: Is The Doctrine Behind the Bush Presidency Consistent with a Democratic State?” Van Bergen makes a cogent argument that Bush’ use of the signing statement and his expansion of unilateral executive power, “violates basic tenets of our system of checks and balances, quietly crossing longstanding legal and moral boundaries that are essential to a democratic society.”]

This was an eye-opening exercise, but it really highlights 2 things: how difficult it is to find government information (even for purportedly savvy users), and how important the library community remains to the success of users in finding the information they need. I doubt whether the average user would go to these lengths to find what one would assume is a pretty straightforward information quest.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. The January 20, 2006 issue of Secrecy News notes a 1993 Department of Justice memorandum was critical of the use of presidential signing statements to create legislative history. The memo claims that the use of signing statements to change interpretation of statutes began with Reagan.

    The memo contains this argument against signing statements:

    On the other side, it can be argued that the President simply cannot cannot speak for Congress, which is an independent constitutional actor and which, moreover, is specifically vested with “[a]ll legislative powers herein granted.” U.S. Const., art. I, § 1, cl. 1. Congress makes legislative history in committee reports, floor debates and hearings, and nothing that the President says on the occasion of signing on a bill can reinterpret that record: once an enrolled bill has been attested by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate and has been presented to the President, the legislative record is closed.

    The memo concludes:

    Many Presidents have used signing statements to make substantive legal, constitutional or administrative pronouncements on the bill being signed. Although the recent practice of issuing signing statements to create “legislative history” remains controversial, the other uses of Presidential signing statements generally serve legitimate and defensible purposes.

    The memo concludes with an appendix that explores how various Presidents back as far as Andrew Jackson have used signing statements.
    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

  2. This example is a good one for arguing for the creation of additional metadata, either by the creating agency, or by the org (in this case UCSB presidency project) collecting and giving access to the information. With a little bit more metadata (i.e., 1=”pr”, 2=”cancelling portions of the law” ) it would give the opportunity to remix information, perhaps taking all the #2’s and adding citations to newspaper/journal articles evaluating the signing statement. Just a thought.

  3. This looks like a good resource. Thanks for posting it. The one difficulty it has for the problem at hand is that doesn’t differentiate between innocent PR type signing statements and ones that purport to cancel disliked portions of laws Congress has passed.

    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

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