Do This, Not That – How Agencies Respond to Presidential Signing Statements

My name is Mitch Boynton and I am a junior political science and economics major at Vanderbilt. Looking forward to experiencing the Fellows program with you all!

I’ve always been interested in how processes lead to different outcomes.  How we make decisions can play a large role in determining what decisions we make. But beyond their impact on prompting certain types of choices, decision-making systems also involve certain value judgments, especially in government: who participates, who directs the action, who gets the last word.  The answers to these questions and many more involve beliefs about rights, merit, and equality.  Therefore, because the government of the United States is one for and by the people, and because government policy decisions have major consequences for everyday citizens, it is critical that the processes used in deciding public policy promote optimal outcomes and reflect the core values of the country.

One of the major innovations in the public policy process over the past decade has been the use of presidential signing statements. Signing statements have long been used for less than earth-shattering purposes – to commend Congress on a job well done, to celebrate the principles behind the law, or perhaps to claim credit. However, more recently, they have been a tool in the struggle between Congress and the president over policymaking authority.  In controversial cases, the president invokes his authority as chief executive to announce his plan for enforcing the law in such a way that gives it a meaning other than Congress originally intended, typically by declaring a portion of the law unconstitutional and resolving to implement it in a manner that does not interfere with the president’s constitutional powers. Many have voiced concern over how this allows the president to distort or ignore provisions of laws by exercising a de facto line-item veto (a de jure version of which has been previously ruled unconstitutional by the courts), leaving Congress without a recourse to override it.  While discussion has been extensive over how the signing statement may or may not be consistent with US civic values of democracy and rule of law, there has been less attention paid to the more tangible effects signing statements may be having on policy outcomes.

How do agencies behave when faced with a law and a controversial signing statement?  Whose “intent” do they implement?  Does this conflict reduce the agencies’ ability to enforce laws effectively or leave their actions susceptible to litigation?  Both Congress and the president have means to exert influence over agencies and pressure them into compliance, but when the two have opposing demands, agencies are likely unable to be responsive to both. Because signing statements are effectively instructions to agencies on how to do their jobs, but are instructions potentially contrary to those found within the law itself, it is unclear how bureaucrats react. I will investigate whether signing statements affect how these administrative institutions discharge their responsibilities under the law. It may be that a new element in the process interferes with the production of coherent and effective public policy. Alternatively, signing statements may allow the president to fend off congressional intrusions into executive affairs, allowing agencies to function without unwieldy congressional restrictions, leading to more efficient administration.

Let me know what you think!

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