Presidential signing statements to come under scrutiny

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(Host) Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy says Presidential signing statements will come under increased scrutiny in the new Democratic led Congress.

Leahy’s remarks came in response to a recent signing statement that may give the government the authority to read mail without a warrant.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Presidents have long used signing statements to clarify and modify bills they sign.

Democrats in Congress have accused President Bush of using the statements to nullify the intent of the laws he signs and to give himself greater authority.

Last month, the President issued a signing statement to accompany the postal reform act.

In it he gives the government permission to open mail in quote “exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials.” Critics, including Senator Leahy, say this appears to pave the way for illegal searches of mail.

(Leahy) “On the face of it, it appears to because we have some very specific laws which allow the executive to inspect mail, to do wiretaps, but you have to follow that law.”

(Zind) Until now the law has permitted the inspection of first class mail only with a judge’s warrant.

According to the American Bar Association, President Bush has issued more than 750 signing statements, more than any of his predecessors.

Leahy says in the past lawmakers haven’t questioned the signing statements. He says the Republican led Congress passed some bill knowing they would be altered by the President.

Leahy says now as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee he’ll question administration officials about the statements which he says the administration has used to give the President too much authority

(Leahy) “I intend to go into this question of signing statements. I don’t think they’re legal. I think they’re part of this unitary system of government that seems to be followed only by this administration.”

(Zind) The Bush administration contends that the signing statement accompanying the postal reform bill simply reiterated existing law that allows mail to be inspected under certain circumstances.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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