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August 29, 2006

CRS Analysis of Statutory Interpretation

Congressional Research Service in March, 2006 published a 50-page report entitled, "Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends.". It's quite an interesting read and has some observations about Presidential Signing Statements that relate to an earlier post. Here is what CRS wrote:


The nature of the President’s role in vetoing or approving legislation suggests
that little interpretational weight should be given to signing statements. Article I,
section 7, clause 2 provides that, after Congress passes a bill and presents it to the
President, “if he approves he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his
Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the
Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.” Several
observations about this language are possible.

First, the President is required to set forth "objections" to a bill he vetoes, but
there is no parallel requirement that he set forth his reasons for approving a bill.
Correspondingly, there is a procedure for congressional consideration of the
President’s objections and for reconsideration of the bill following a veto, but no
procedure for congressional response following a signing. Of course, absence of a
constitutionally recognized procedure does not require that the President’s views be
discounted; after all, the Constitution is also silent about committee reports, floor
debates, and other components of legislative history. But such absence does suggest
that the President’s views should be discounted when they conflict with
congressional explanations otherwise entitled to weight. A rule for resolving
conflicts in legislative history provides guidance here. When the two Houses have
disagreed on the meaning of identical language in a bill that did not go to conference,
the explanation that was before both Houses (i.e., the explanation of the originating
House) prevails if the court relies on legislative history at all. The rationale is that
congressional intent should depend upon the actions of both Houses. “By
unanimously passing the Senate Bill without amendment, the House denied the entire
Senate an opportunity to object (or concur) to [its] interpretation.” Similarly,
because Congress has no opportunity to respond to interpretations set forth in signing
statements, courts should not use those interpretations to change meaning.

A second observation about the Constitutional text is that the President has a
choice of approving or disapproving a “bill” in its entirety, and may not disapprove
some portions while approving others. Not only does the President lack a line-item
veto, but Congress can’t grant the President such authority by statute. Giving effect to a signing statement that would negate a statutory provision can be
considered analogous to a line item veto.

The President’s signing statement explanations of bill language may be entitled
to more weight if the President or his Administration worked closely with Congress
in developing the legislation, and if the approved version incorporated the President’s
recommendations. This principle can be applied not only to bills introduced at the
Administration’s behest, but also to bills the final content of which resulted from
compromise negotiations between the Administration and Congress. In such
circumstances, of course, signing statements are used to explain rather than negate
congressional action, and are most valuable as lending support to congressional
explanations.

Even if presidential signing statements should not be treated as a significant part
of legislative history, they may still affect interpretation as directives to administering
agencies....

(Footnotes omitted). An interesting analysis -- no doubt, given the growing use of signing statements, we'll some day see if the court deems one president's views of what text means more influential than one legislator's.

August 29, 2006 in Current Affairs | Permalink

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The Statutory Construction Blog has this post on a March 2006 CRS report, "Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends." The blog notes that the report weighs in on the value of presidential signing statements.... [Read More]

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