George W. Bush, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Use and Abuse of Presidential Signing Statements

By Cooper, Phillip J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2005 | Go to article overview

George W. Bush, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Use and Abuse of Presidential Signing Statements


Cooper, Phillip J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


As President George W. Bush approached the beginning of his second term, national news media speculated as to why he had not been willing to use his veto power and whether he would be forced to do so with the new Congress. When he threatened Congress that it should not even think about reopening the Medicare prescription drug legislation, the Washington Post observed: "For Bush, the forceful statement represented a rare invocation of the presidential veto as a weapon in a legislative fight with a Republican Congress. Through more than four years in the White House, Bush has never vetoed any bill" (Baker and Allen 2005). One Baltimore Sun columnist put the matter dramatically.

   Whatever history says about George W. Bush, it
   won't say he was a weak president.... Yet in one
   major way, he has verged on timidity. In his entire
   first term, he hasn't used a power that most presidents
   have regarded as indispensable: the veto. It's the
   equivalent of Barbra Streisand refusing to sing show
   tunes or Donald Trump giving away all his worldly
   possessions. Why unilaterally relinquish your biggest
   asset? ... Though Mr. Bush sometimes grumbles, he
   always succumbs in the end. (Chapman 2004)

In a narrow and very technical sense, the commentators and some members of Congress were correct that the president had not returned legislation to Congress with his veto for their consideration of an override or further legislative action. In very real terms, however, they were quite wrong, for the president had used the little-known policy tool called a presidential signing statement as a very effective and substantive line-item veto to effectively nullify a wide range of statutory provisions even as he signed the legislation that contained them into law. This article considers the contemporary use of the signing statement with particular attention to President George W. Bush's first term. (The research examined all of the statements issued during his first four years in office.) The question is, how have this president and his administration chosen to use the signing statement and to what extent does the administration's application of this tool of direct presidential action represent important initiatives with future significance? The thesis that emerges from this study is that the George W. Bush administration has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress. This tour d' force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all.

So what does all of this have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? The answer lies in Poe's classic "Purloined Letter" (Poe 1845). In the story, the prefect of police seeks the assistance of the famed C. Auguste Dupin to locate a letter that was taken by the infamous Minister "D." After having taken every reasonable direct step to locate the letter, the police had failed. However, Dupin promptly handed over the letter once he had been paid his fee. He then explained to the narrator that those seeking to get the goods on the minister had made two mistakes. The first was that they had underestimated the official with whom they were dealing, a serious but very common mistake. And because of the first error, they failed to consider "that the Minister had deposited the letter immediately beneath the nose of the whole world" (Poe 1845). The Bush administration has indeed hidden its bold political and legal actions in plain sight where few of its critics or opponents would see them.

A Primer on Presidential Signing Statements: The Nature and Uses of the Policy Tool

While a broader analysis of the nature, use, opportunities, and challenges of signing statements, including an assessment of their use in the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations, was presented elsewhere (Cooper 2002), it is useful to consider some basics before turning to the George W.

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