Today's newspapers report that the American Bar Association's high-level, non-partisan task force examining the issue of presidential "signing statements" is firmly critical of the Bush-Cheney administration's use of the political tactic. As the Boston Globe has taken the lead in reporting, the administration (largely under the influence of VP Chief of Staff David Addington) has claimed that a chief executive can sign a bill but state that he or she isn't obligated to conform to it.
Among the historic documents those articles cite is President George Washington's commentary on his veto power. It came in a letter to Edward Pendleton, a fellow Virginian who had written with criticism of the Secretary of the Treasury—Washington's brilliant and prickly protégé Alexander Hamilton. Here’s the President's reply, quoted in full from the Library of Congress's American Memory website.
Mount Vernon, September 23, 1793.Washington showed his mastery of genteel etiquette here, flattering Pendleton while also reminding the man that he hadn’t fulfilled his promise to keep in touch. The President thus got the upper hand in two ways.
My dear Sir:
With very sincere pleasure I received your private letter of the 11th. instant [i.e., this month]. This pleasure was not a little enhanced by your reiterated assurance of my still holding that place in your estimation which, on more occasions than one, you have given me the most flattering testimony, highly gratifying to my mind. This assurance came opportunely, as I had begun to conceive (though unable to assign a cause) that some part of my public conduct, however well meant my endeavors, had appeared unfavorable in your eyes, for you will please to recollect that, formerly you promised me, and I always expected, an annual letter from you. It is now (if my memory has not failed me) at least four years since I have had that pleasure.
Sequestered you say you are, from the World, and know little of what is transacting in it but from Newspapers. I regret this exceedingly. I wish you had more to do on the great theatre; and that your means of information were co-equal to your abilities, and the disposition I know you possess to judge properly of public measures. It would be better perhaps for that public it should be so; for be assured we have some infamous Papers, calculated for disturbing if not absolutely intended to disturb, the peace of the community.Politicians have blamed the free press for misrepresenting policies from the beginning of the free press. And again Washington both flattered Pendleton and subtly chided him for not being more involved in politics and thus better informed.
With respect to the fiscal conduct of the S—t—y of the Tr—s—y I will say nothing; because an enquiry, more than probable, will be instituted next Session of Congress into some of the Allegations against him, which, eventually, may involve the whole; and because, if I mistake not, he will seek, rather than shrink from, an investigation. A fair opportunity will then be given to the impartial world to form a just estimate of his Acts, and probably of his motives. No one, I will venture to say, wishes more devoutly than I do that they may be probed to the bottom, be the result what it will.Washington welcomed congressional inquiry into his administration's decisions. He didn't try to hide important policies from Congress or the public.
With the most scrupulous truth I can assure you, that your free and unreserved opinion upon any public measure of importance will always be acceptable to me, whether it respects men, or measures; and on no man do I wish it to be expressed more fully than on myself; for as I can conscientiously declare that I have no object in view incompatible with the Constitution, and the obvious interests of this Country, nor no earthly desire half as strong as that of returning to the walks of private life, so, of consequence I only wish whilst I am a Servant of the public, to know the Will of my masters, that I may govern myself accordingly.Washington saw himself as obligated to accept an entire bill as law or to reject it entirely. He didn't believe that the President could unilaterally define which parts of a bill he could ignore, on grounds of "national security" or any other excuse.
You do me no more than Justice when you suppose that from motives of respect to the Legislature (and I might add from my interpretation of the Constitution) I give my Signature to many Bills with which my Judgment is at variance. In declaring this, however, I allude to no particular Act. From the nature of the Constitution, I must approve all the parts of a Bill, or reject it in toto. To do the latter can only be Justified upon the clean and obvious ground of propriety; and I never had such confidence in my own faculty of judging as to be over tenacious of the opinions I may have imbibed in doubtful cases.
In fact, Washington implied that his only justification for rejecting a bill is "the clean and obvious ground of propriety," not because he simply disagreed with it. Historians state that until Andrew Jackson took office, Presidents justified their rare vetoes of bills only on the grounds that they seemed unconstitutional, not simply impolitic. Congress was the legislative branch of the federal government, the branch that made the law. The President and his appointees were supposed to execute those laws, not decide on their value. Modern politicians, including most who claim loyalty to the original interpretation(s) of the Constitution, rarely stick to those distinctions.
Mrs. Washington who enjoys tolerable good health joins me most cordially in best wishes to you and Mrs. Pendleton. I wish you may live long, continue in good health and end your days as you have been wearing them away, happily and respected. Always, and most affectionately,
Yr. Obedt. Servant