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Constitutional FAQ Answer #150

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Q150. "There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about 'presidential signing statements.' What are they and where are they in the Constitution?"

A. A presidential signing statement is a document that the President attaches to a bill as he signs it, officially making the bill a law. The statement, which has relatively long history, can be anything, from a note adding the President's thoughts about a law to one completely disagreeing with the law (making the signing statement an alternative to a veto). The signing statement has become news lately because President George W. Bush has attached signing statements to bills that have said, in essence, I acknowledge this bill, but I reserve the right to not follow the law in some instances once I sign it.

There is no provision in the Constitution for a presidential signing statement. These statements are "extra-legal," meaning they exist outside the context of the Constitution. There is nothing to say they can or should be attached — but there is also nothing saying they cannot be. However, the Constitution is clear that the President will carry out the laws passed by Congress. There is no wiggle room in Article 2, Section 3.

So what good is a signing statement, especially one that says the president might not follow the law? That remains to be seen — there have not been any Supreme Court cases dealing with signing statements, let alone contradictory ones. However, given the explicitness of the Constitution, it seems to me that any failure to carry out a law based on a signing statement would not be looked upon favorably by the Congress or the courts.

It should be noted that if the President disagrees with a bill, the Constitution provides a method for the bill to be challenged: the veto. As noted above, a signing statement disagrees with the law has no effect on the law. A veto is the only way the President can affect the bill, though if the President feels a veto would not be politically expedient, a signing statement might be used to express that disagreement.

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