The Boston Globe reports today that the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a hearing with the FBI director Mueller, vowed to hold hearings on Bush's use of presidential signing statements to sidestep legislation.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing the White House of a ''very blatant encroachment" on congressional authority, said yesterday he will hold an oversight hearing into President Bush's assertion that he has the power to bypass more than 750 laws enacted over the past five years.
''There is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority here," Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. ''What's the point of having a statute if . . . the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?"
Specter said he plans to hold the hearing in June. He said he intends to call administration officials to explain and defend the president's claims of authority, as well to invite constitutional scholars to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power.
The senator emphasized that his goal is ''to bring some light on the subject." Legal scholars say that, when confronted by a president encroaching on their power, Congress's options are limited. Lawmakers can call for hearings or cut the funds of a targeted program to apply political pressure, or take the more politically charged steps of censure or impeachment.
Specter's announcement followed a report in the Sunday Globe that Bush has quietly asserted the authority to ignore provisions in 750 bills he has signed -- about 1 in 10.
Over the past five years, Bush has stated that he can defy any statute that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. In many instances, Bush cited his role as head of the executive branch or as commander in chief to justify the exemption.
The statutes that Bush has asserted the right to override include numerous rules and regulations for the military, job protections for whistle-blowers who tell Congress about possible government wrongdoing, affirmative action requirements, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.
Bush made the claims in ''signing statements," official documents in which a president lays out his interpretation of a bill for the executive branch, creating guidelines to follow when it implements the law. The statements are filed without fanfare in the federal record, often following ceremonies in which the president made no mention of the objections he was about to raise in the bill, even as he signed it into law.
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said via e-mail that if Specter calls a hearing, ''by all means we will ensure he has the information he needs." She pointed out that other presidents dating to the 19th century have ''on occasion" issued statements that raise constitutional concerns about provisions in new laws.
But while previous presidents did occasionally challenge provisions in laws while signing them, legal scholars say, the frequency and breadth of Bush's use of that power are unprecedented.
Bush is also the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, an act that gives public notice that he is rejecting a law and can be overridden by Congress. Instead, Bush has used signing statements to declare that he can bypass numerous provisions in new laws.
The statements attracted little attention in Congress or the media until recently, when Bush used them to reserve a right to bypass a new torture ban and new oversight provisions in the Patriot Act.
''The problem is that you have a statute, which Congress has passed, and then the signing statements negate that statute," Specter said. ''And there are more and more of them coming. If the president doesn't like something, he puts a signing statement on it."
Specter added: ''He put a signing statement on the Patriot Act. He put a signing statement on the torture issue. It's a very blatant encroachment on [Congress's constitutional] powers. If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."
It was during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the FBI that Specter yesterday announced his intent to hold a hearing on Bush's legal authority. Another committee member, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, also questioned Bush's assertions that he has the authority to give himself an exemption from certain laws.
''Unfortunately, the president's signing statement on the Patriot Act is hardly the first time that he has shown a disrespect for the rule of law," Feingold said. ''The Boston Globe reported on Sunday that the president has used signing statements to reserve the right to break the law more than 750 times."
Feingold is an outspoken critic of Bush's assertion that his wartime powers give him the authority to set aside laws. The senator has proposed censuring Bush over his domestic spying program, in which the president secretly authorized the military to wiretap Americans' phones without a warrant, bypassing a 1978 surveillance law.
At the hearing yesterday, Feingold pressed FBI director Robert Mueller to give assurances that the bureau would comply with provisions in the Patriot Act and to tell Congress how agents are using the law to search homes and secretly seize papers.
Mueller said he saw no reason that the bureau couldn't share that information with Congress. But he also said that he was bound to obey the administration, and declined to promise that he would ''go out there and fight" on behalf of Congress if Bush decided to override the Patriot Act's oversight provision and ordered the FBI not to brief Congress.
Feingold also said Bush's legal claims have cast a cloud over a host of rules and restrictions that Congress has passed, using its constitutional authority to regulate the executive branch of government.
''How can we know whether the government will comply with the new laws that we passed?" Feingold said. ''I'm not placing the blame on you, obviously, or your agents who work to protect this country every day, but how can we have any assurance that you or your agents have not received a secret directive from above requiring you to violate laws that we all think apply today?"
Mueller replied: ''I can assure with you with regard to the FBI that our actions would be taken according to appropriate legal authorities."
Specter said that challenging Bush's contention that he can ignore laws written by Congress should be a matter of institutional pride for lawmakers. He also connected Bush's defiance of laws to several Supreme Court decisions in which the justices ruled that Congress had not done enough research to justify a law.
''We're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other," Specter said. ''There may as well soon not be a Congress. . . . And I think that most members don't understand what's happening."
I was particularly taken with Mueller's careful answer to the unnerving question about whether FBI agents might be acting under secret directives from the White House. See my bold face-added emphasis above. That's no kind of answer is it?