By the Power of Signing Statements, I Have the Power!


Must-read (albeit short) cover story in Congressional Quarterly this week, on exactly how far the goalposts have been moved on executive power during the Bush years.

Executive power is such an abstract subject that it rarely, if ever, comes up during a presidential campaign. It's hard to pose the questions in a way that matters to voters, although most of this year's Republican candidates did get grilled, in an October debate in Michigan, about whether they would launch military strikes against Iran without consulting Congress. That prospect seemed real at the time, before the release of a new intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

Even when the subject of presidential power does come up, it can be easily dismissed because conventional wisdom holds that it's nothing new for presidents to seek more power and resist congressional oversight. "From my experience, I don't think any president walks into their job and starts thinking about how they can minimize their authority," said Leon E. Panetta, who served eight terms as a California congressman before becoming budget director and then White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

But such general statements aren't very helpful in predicting how assertive a presidential candidate will be once he or she is on the job. Other presidents have flexed their muscles: Jimmy Carter unilaterally withdrew the United States from a mutual-defense treaty with Taiwan in 1978, and Clinton launched weeks of U.S. airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999 without congressional authorization. Neither one, though, has come close to the Bush team in expanding presidential power for its own sake and refusing to consult Congress as a matter of principle.

I've heard Hillary Clinton talk about giving back some executive powers (consulting with Congress more, dusting off habeas corpus), but she hasn't exactly promised to. The pattern has been to make wilder and more expansive proclamations about executive power—I'll cut up Robert Byrd's health care card! I'll double Gitmo!—and watch the polls tick up.