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Presidential signing statements

Presidential signing statements are notes added by presidents when signing a bill into law. They explain why the president supports the law or highlight issues. Although not legally binding, they signal potential problems and can indicate parts of the law the president finds unconstitutional.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] What we're going to do in this video is talk about presidential signing statements. And these are statements that presidents issue when they are signing a bill into law. They don't always do this. In fact, it was quite infrequent for a very long time. The first signing statement was issued by James Monroe. But it was quite infrequent until we get to the modern times. And starting with Ronald Reagan, they become much, much more common for presidents of both parties. And even though it is not considered by legal scholars to be legally binding. So, not legally binding, presidents still do it. And they have multiple reasons. Sometimes, it acts as a bit of an explainer for why they are signing the law. They might say how great the law is, why they think it's a good idea. But sometimes, they also say what problems there are in the law. And in an extreme case, they can sometimes say that there are parts of the law that are unconstitutional. And those parts that are unconstitutional, the Executive Branch might not follow exactly the way the law states. Well an obvious question is, if it's not legally binding, why does the President even take the trouble? Well, the explainer purpose might be political, or it might rally up the base. But issuing a statement on the problems, it's the President's way of signaling to the entire Executive Branch and to Congress that hey, look, don't be surprised when I don't follow the letter of the law of the parts that I think are unconstitutional. And to make this tangible, let's look at some actual signing statements. This is a signing statement by President George W. Bush in 2006. Today, I have signed into law H.R. 972, the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2005. This act enhances our ability to combat trafficking in persons by extending and improving prosecutorial and diplomatic tools, and also adds new protections for victims. So that part's kind of an explainer. But then it goes on to say, Section 104 purports to require the Secretary of State, prior to voting for a new or reauthorized peacekeeping mission under the auspices of a multilateral organization to submit to the Congress a specific report. The Executive Branch shall construe this reporting requirement in a manner consistent with the President's Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief and the President's constitutional authority to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs. And so what they're saying is, hey, hold on a second here, Congress. You want our Secretary of State, before making this decision, to submit a report every time? You're kind of starting to muck with how the Executive Branch executes there. So this is signaling a bit to the Congress as, hey, don't be surprised if we don't follow this exactly the way that you are expecting. You have a similar tone in an executive order from President Obama in 2009. Today, I have signed into law H.R. 1105, the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009. This bill completes the work of last year by providing the funding necessary for the smooth operation of our Nation's Government. So once again, a bit of an explainer. But then it goes on to say, the Department of Justice has advised that a small number of provisions of the bill raise constitutional concerns. And then it goes on to list actually several bullet points, and I'm just going to give you one of them, just so you get a sense of things. Legislative aggrandizements, committee approval requirements. So, when you aggrandize yourself, it's making yourself more than you really are. And so a legislative aggrandizement is the legislative branch trying to go beyond their legislative powers. Numerous provisions of the legislation purport to condition the authority of officers to spend or reallocate funds on the approval of congressional committees. These are impermissible forms of legislative aggrandizement in the execution of the laws other than by enactment of statutes. Therefore, although my administration will notify the relevant committees before taking the specified actions and will accord the recommendations of such committees all appropriate and serious consideration, spending decisions shall not be treated as dependent on the approval of congressional committees. So, here in this signing statement, President Obama's saying, look, this is overstepping the bounds of legislative authority to tell us how we will spend these things. We'll take your advice under consideration, but dictating how to execute is not the job of the Legislative Branch. So I'll leave you there. I encourage you to look up more presidential signing statements. They're readily available on the internet. They're part of the Federal Registry. And think about why presidents do this. And, what role does this have? And why this is considered an informal power of the President.