Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Signing Statements, Gridlock, and Presidential Strategy

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Signing Statements, Gridlock, and Presidential Strategy

Article excerpt

During President George W. Bush's second term, controversy emerged over the president's perceived handling of hundreds of duly enacted congressional statutes. Phillip Cooper (2005) was among the first to call attention to Bush's propensity for using signing statements as a way to construe the intent of a bill he had just signed, and others quickly followed suit. Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe reported in early 2006 that "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office," and a year later, the American Bar Association (2006, 1) released a report decrying "the misuse of presidential signing statements," urging a different course of action that would limit undue presidential influence.

A surge in research on presidential signing statements followed in the wake of the controversy (Berry 2009; Conley 2011; Kelley and Marshall 2008, 2009, 2010; Korzi 2011; Ostrander and Sievert 2013; Sollenberger and Rozell 2011). The belief that Bush's usage of signing statements was "unprecedented" (Savage 2006) was significantly overstated, but nevertheless, focus among many presidential scholars, especially scholars of unilateral presidential power, began to shift to the causes and consequences of signing statements. Signing statements are not new, but the perception at least is that their use is consequential, prompting many to ponder when and why presidents will use these statements.

Extant research has advanced two theories about the use of presidential signing statements. The first is a political perspective, which holds that signing statements are at least in part a reaction to ideological differences with Congress (Berry 2009; Kelley and Marshall 2008, 2010; Whitford 2012). The second view is a separation of powers perspective, which takes the signing statement as a presidential reaction to the infringement by Congress on the powers of the president (Evans 2011; Ostrander and Sievert 2012). This view holds that political considerations can be secondary to more fundamental presidential concerns about the encroachment of Congress on the president's prerogatives. As Ostrander and Sievert (2012, 10) write, "presidents and Congress are interested not only in policy outcomes but also in their relative balance of power vis-a-vis one another." These two views are not mutually exclusive. Berry (2009) and Kelley and Marshall (2008) contend that institutional prerogatives matter to the president when it comes to the use of signing statements. Thus, the signing statement is, as Ostrander and Sievert suggest, a story of multiple considerations, meeting together to shape presidential strategy.

However, scholars have not adequately considered ideological differences between the president and Congress as well as gridlock within Congress when developing models to test the usage of signing statements. Principally, measures of separation between the two branches have largely been dichotomized to represent the differences between unified and divided government (Berry 2009; Kelley and Marshall 2008; Ostrander and Sievert 2012). When ideology is considered (Kelley and Marshall 2010), it is done independent of gridlock within Congress. This article argues that varying levels of legislative gridlock interact with the nature of Congress's relationship to the president (i.e., whether government is unified or divided) to change presidential motivations and the use of signing statements.

Gridlock and Presidential Strategy

Gridlock and divided government, when visited in conjunction with the study of legislative productivity and government action, received quite a beating in the realm of public opinion and among scholars for years before David Mayhew's (1991) groundbreaking study. James Sundquist (1988, 629) captured the conventional wisdom of the time when he described divided government as both "unhealthy" and "debilitating." However, with Mayhew (1991) came the argument that divided government hampers legislative productivity (at least in the face of important legislation) either not at all or not as much as is expected. …

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