We are reminded of the civics lessons we learned in high school by a writer whose letter was published by The Delaware News Journal. The writer notes that we should have learned that the power in Washington is not in the hands of the president, but in the hands of Congress.
This is only partially true.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to attend high school and/or even elementary school while civics and/or social studies was still being taught, we learned that The Constitution gives our government three equal but separate branches. They are the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. One can easily come to the conclusion that the framers created the three branches of government so that the government would not consist of one group of leaders or one leader who governed with no oversight. The framers wanted a set of checks and balances. It was, and still is, a brilliant idea.
The letter writer, however, states that “the Senate and House of Representatives hold the true power to begin change”. While it’s almost always been true that a president who belongs to Congress’s minority party has a more difficult time getting legislation passed or rejected, George W. Bush has rewritten our civics text books.
If I have this right, the way it’s suppose to work is that a bill is presented to Congress for consideration. The members of The House sometimes read the bill, debate the content, possibly add some amendments and either vote for or against the bill.
If the bill passes, it goes to The Senate which basically repeats the same process.
If the bill passes both the House and The Senate, it’s sent to the president for approval or rejection. If the president finds that the bill is not in the best interest of the country or him or his friends, as written, he can veto the bill and send it back to Congress for more debate and possible amendments that will make it more palatable for him.
The bill can then be sent back to the president with the hope that he will approve it. If he still is not satisfied with the bill, he can then send it back again to Congress. If two-thirds of the members of The House and The Senate, in separate votes, of course, want the bill passed in spite of the president’s veto, they can override the veto and pass the bill.
This would seem as though the writer is absolutely correct as the above explanation gives Congress the last word. However, Congress really doesn’t have the final say.
If the president is deeply concerned that the bill is unconstitutional or not as profitable as he would hope, he can turn to the third equal branch of government, The Supreme Court, and ask then to rule that the bill is, indeed, unconstitutional. Deciding whether the actions of a person or a group of people are in line with The Constitution is the job of The Supreme Court.
If The Supreme Court finds that the bill is not unconstitutional, it has the final say. The bill, in that case, would stand and become law.
Equality among the different branches of government. How can one go wrong?
The writer may have forgotten he learned during his studying of The Constitution that the president has the final say. Did he not learn about the all important signing statement that the president can use to decide, without the help of The Supreme Court, that a law, or at least parts of it, is unconstitutional? Neither did I.
Why did we not learn this while studying The Constitution? We didn’t learn this because there is no mention of signing statements in The Constitution.
An article entitled “The Problem with Presidential Signing Statements: Their Use and Misuse by the Bush Administration” by John Dean, former White House Counsel during the administration of Richard M. Nixon, explains the issue of signing statements very clearly. Dean should know what happens when a president tries to circumvent The Constitution. He was part of the group that helped plan and carry out the illegal break-in of Democratic Presidential Campaign Headquarters at The Watergate Hotel in 1972. For initially obstructing justice in The Watergate Scandal, Dean was sentenced to four months in prison. He ultimately told Congress the truth about the break-in, which was that Nixon knew about it.
Although the article is two years old, the use and abuse of signing statements by Bush is still relevant. In fact, when Dean wrote the article, Bush had challenged 505 provisions of laws that had passed in Congress. A more recent list of all of Bush’s 157 signing statements concludes that the number of provisions within legislative laws that have actually been passed but have been “challenged” by Bush has reached 1,100. More specifically, Bush has accepted the fact that Congress passed certain laws. He’s merely made it clear that his position as President gives him the power and right to ignore them.