There has been an enormous amount of attention to President Bush's phenomenal use of signing statements to conduct an unconstitutional end-run around both congressional and judicial authority. If you Google "signing statements" you quickly discover that nearly all the attention to this topic has been Internet sources of real-news, not mainstream media sources of commercial-news. Though credit must be given to the Boston Globe and its story "Bush Challenges Hundreds of Laws" by Charlie Savage on April 30, 2006.
The Globe story opened with: "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution." The story ended poignantly with: "Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said the American system of government relies upon the leaders of each branch 'to exercise some self-restraint.' But Bush has declared himself the sole judge of his own powers, he said, and then ruled for himself every time. 'This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy,' Fein said. 'There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn't doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.'"
Later, on May 5, 2006, the New York Times editorialized "In this area, as in so many others, Mr. Bush has decided not to take the open, forthright constitutional path. He signed some of the laws in question with great fanfare, then quietly registered his intention to ignore them. He placed his imperial vision of the presidency over the will of America's elected lawmakers. And as usual, the Republican majority in Congress simply looked the other way. ...Like many of Mr. Bush's other imperial excesses, this one serves no legitimate purpose."
After the Globe story and New York Times editorial, the Washington Post was singled out in several Internet stories for its lack of coverage of this democracy-decline story. On June 27, 2006 Dan Froomkin of niemanwatchdog.org wrote: "Lackluster reporting about this big story has left many critically important questions unanswered. ... The Washington Post - at least in its news columns - has been silent." What a coincidence, on June 28, "Bush's Challenges of Laws He Signed Is Criticized" by Jonathan Weisman appeared on page A9 of the Post. "A bipartisan group of senators and scholars denounced President Bush yesterday for using scores of "signing statements" to reserve the right to ignore or reinterpret provisions of measures that he has signed into law," opened the story.
Before the Globe and other news media found the issue was the September 2005 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly where Portland State University Professor Phillip J. Cooper presented his findings on signing statement usage: "the George W. Bush administration has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress. This tour d' force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all." Eventually, we the people became informed, but years after the Bush administration had honed its sneaky signing statement practice. As Bush was selling democracy with hypocrisy around the world, America's democracy was being stealthily dismantled at home by the man who was reelected with just 31 percent of eligible voters.
The signing statement story kept building steam as millions of disillusioned and dissenting Americans saw the signing statement habit of Bush as just another nail in the coffin of American democracy.
Did the Post learn its lesson? No. On July 24, 2006 a front page self-important story "Eight Issues That Will Shape the 2006 Elections" appeared in the Post, with two full pages of follow-up detailing the eight issues, which were: Bush himself, the economy, the red states, the Abramoff affair, immigration, suburbia, the Northeast, and voter turnout from ballot issues. Even more intriguing was the story on page A5 that day, "Bush's Tactic of Refusing Laws is Probed." To his credit Michael Abramowitz described the sharp attack on Bush and his signing statements in a report by the American Bar Association's Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine. "The panel members described the development as a serious threat to the Constitution's system of checks and balances, and they urged Congress to pass legislation permitting court review of such statements. ...The panel said signing statements should not be a substitute for vetoing bills the president considers unconstitutional," reported Abramowitz.
ABA President Michael S. Greco said: "This report raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy. If left unchecked, the president's practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances, that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries. Immediate action is required to address this threat to the Constitution and to the rule of law in our country." This is not some far out leftist progressive talking about a threat to American democracy.
Also, on July 24, Washington Post blog columnist Dan Froomkin commented on media coverage of the ABA report and asked "will today's coverage of the report by the traditional media lead to a continued examination of this important story? Or will the press allow what the task force describes as an imminent threat to the Constitution slide back off the national agenda?" Apparently Froomkin did not make the connection to the Post's definition of important issues for the 2006 elections.
So here's the point: Why the hell didn't the Post see the signing statement topic as important enough to identify as an issue for the 2006 elections? It could have cited signing statements explicitly or, better yet, as it did with other of its issues, broadly define the issue as "American democracy's decline" with Bush's signing statement predilection used to further define the democracy-decline issue. And the Post could even amplify on the democracy-decline issue by referring to the decline of congressional oversight during the Bush administration that has also received considerable attention. And maybe the loss of confidence in elections because of electronic voting could also be folded into the democracy-decline issue. Also, the engineered incumbency of members of congress because of sanctioned gerrymandering that makes so much voting meaningless. And how about the miserable levels of voter turnout, especially in non-presidential election years? And don't forget the selling out of our national sovereignty through international trade agreements. In fact, the more one thinks about America's delusional democracy, the more dimensions of it come to mind. More than enough to qualify democracy-decline as a relevant issue for the 2006 elections. Wait, here's another idea: Why not fold the Abramoff-corruption issue into the democracy-decline issue and stay with the nice number of eight issues. After all, corporate corruption of our government has created our misrepresentative democracy.
Why does the Post ignore the public's interest in the state of American democracy? Is there anything more important in our elections than the health of our democracy? Shouldn't a major newspaper like the Post stimulate public interest in (and outrage about) the democracy-decline issue and better inform the public about it so that candidates in the 2006 elections could be better questioned about their commitment to fix American democracy? Is there any intellectual or journalistic reason for the Post not reaching a conclusion that American democracy has descended into democracy-hell? Call it a fake democracy or a delusional democracy, but surely don't call it the world's greatest democracy. That was credible when we had our Greatest Generation, not with our current distracted, consumption-crazed, and debt-laden citizenry under thrall of corporate powers.
Perhaps the answer is that the Washington Post is too much a part of the elitist power status quo establishment running our country, and too committed to the two-party duopoly's strangle-hold on our political system. Does the Post find it unpatriotic or embarrassing to openly talk about the sorry state of our democracy? Or is it ashamed because it has contributed to our democracy-decline?
Where is the fabled fourth estate when the country most needs it? On the Internet, that's where. Where free speech can still serve the public interest.
[The author's new book Delusional Democracy - Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government will be released soon by Common Courage Press; he can be reached through www.delusionaldemocracy.com.]