Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Statements of Power: Presidential Use of Statements of Administration Policy and Signing Statements in the Legislative Process

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Statements of Power: Presidential Use of Statements of Administration Policy and Signing Statements in the Legislative Process

Article excerpt

In 1997, Republican congressional leadership thought they had President Bill Clinton trapped into accepting something he did not want in order to get something he did. The foreign relations authorization bill for fiscal year 1998 provided the vehicle. They included payment of back dues owed to the United Nations in the bill, but to get it, Clinton would also have to assent to another provision, one he vehemently opposed--restrictions on foreign aid to any family planning programs that performed or advocated abortion. "Can you imagine vetoing 100 percent of what you want because someone got 10 percent of what they want [that] you disagree with? That would be a foolish choice," stated House majority leader Dick Armey (Pomper 1998). Foolish or not, Clinton made the choice and vetoed the bill, using the tool the Constitution gave him to block bills he opposed.

He had another tool, though, at his disposal, one not included in the Constitution but one he used more than 40 times in the last four years of his presidency, and had he used it in this circumstance, things could have turned out differently. Instead of vetoing the bill, he could have signed it and attached a signing statement, announcing his intention to interpret the provision restricting funding to international family planning programs as merely advisory or as violating his constitutional powers to conduct foreign affairs, and therefore it would be disregarded or reinterpreted in a manner consistent with those powers. Valid reasoning or not, it could have given him exactly what he wanted--payment of the UN dues and no restrictions on aid to international family planning programs. But such a use could hardly escape notice. Clinton's signature on a bill allowing such restrictions would have outraged many of his supporters and violated a promise. In fact, the president would have faced strong incentives to draw attention to a signing statement announcing his intention to disregard the provision. But that would have brought this type of use of the signing statement to center stage and surely would have drawn congressional ire. Vetoing the bill, despite the fact that it would mean UN dues would remain unpaid, represented his best political option.

Two years later, Clinton and the Republican Congress again clashed over the foreign affairs reauthorization bill, but the game changed slightly. The United States was now faced with an embarrassing loss of its seat in the UN General Assembly if it failed to pay back dues. The bill eventually presented to Clinton was a consolidation of multiple appropriations and authorization bills that not only included the payment of the dues, but also substantially weakened the restrictions on funding to international family planning programs, allowing Clinton to waive them. Clinton signed the bill but attached a signing statement that included the following language:

Unfortunately, the bill also includes a provision on international family planning that I have strongly opposed throughout my Administration. This is a one-time provision that imposes additional restrictions on international family planning groups. However, I insisted that the Congress allow for a Presidential waiver provision, which I have exercised today. (Clinton 1999a)

After outlining positions on several other provisions in the signed bill, the section on the Foreign Operations portion also included the following:

This legislation includes a number of provisions in the various Acts incorporated in it regarding the conduct of foreign affairs that raise serious constitutional concerns. These provisions would direct or burden my negotiations with foreign governments and international organizations, as well as intrude on my ability to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Similarly, some provisions would constrain my Commander in Chief authority and the exercise of my exclusive authority to receive ambassadors and to conduct diplomacy. …

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