Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Agencies ignore laws Bush challenged

From the Boston Globe:

Federal officials have disobeyed at least six new laws that President Bush challenged in his signing statements, a government study disclosed yesterday. The report provides the first evidence that the government may have acted on claims by Bush that he can set aside laws under his executive powers.

In a report to Congress, the non partisan Government Accountability Office studied a small sample of the bill provisions that Bush has signed into law but also challenged with signing statements. The GAO found that agencies disobeyed six such laws, while enforcing 10 others as written even though Bush had challenged them.

The good news, I guess, is that they're only disobeying a third of the laws in the sample. The bad news is that Bush has issued more than 1,100 signing statements. If the ratio held up, that would be about 400 ignored laws. And the sample didn't include any of the really controversial measures that Bush has objected to.

On the other hand, there is this caveat:

The GAO report's authors made clear that it was beyond the scope of their study to determine whether the federal agencies' failure to enforce laws as written is due to Bush's signing statements, or a mere coincidence. They did not interview individual officials to learn whether the signing statements played a role in their actions.

That said, they cite one example (which certainly sounds like Congressional micromanaging, having to do with the placement of Border Patrol sites in the Tucson area) in which the signing statement said the law was merely "advisory" and the agency in question told the GAO they considered the law "advisory." That clearly suggests that the agency was relying on the signing statement.

And there's this:

Of the other five laws that the study found were disobeyed, two provisions required agencies to get permission from a congressional committee before taking certain actions. In both cases, the agencies notified the committee but acted without their permission -- just as Bush's signing statements instructed them.

Again, that seems like a fairly clear causal link.

And finally, there's just out-and-out ignoring things:

The other three provisions involved the executive branch giving information to congressional oversight committees, including plans for emergency housing following a disaster; budget documents related to certain military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a proposal to fix a problem related to funding for military medical services. In all three cases, the administration did not obey the laws as written.

Given the relatively minor nature of the provisions in question, it's best to temper the outrage a bit. In an organization as huge and sprawling as the federal government, a certain amount of stuff will simply fall through the cracks. It wouldn't particularly surprise me if a third of such obscure items simply got lost in the shuffle.

Still, the concordance between the agencies' actions and the language of Bush's signing statements suggests that there is indeed a link. And if so, it needs to be examined. There can be reasonable disagreements over whether a given law exceeds Congressional authority. But the proper response to that is to challenge the law's constitutionality, not simply ignore the laws you don't like.

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