According to Wikipedia, a Signing Statement is:
Some interesting facts on signing statements:
- They are neither permitted or prohibited by any law.
- Until 1981, only 75 had been issued
- President Reagan issued 71 in two terms in office
- President Bush (the older) issued 146 in one term in office
- President Clinton issued 105 in two terms in office
- President Bush (the younger), has issued over 750 in two terms in office
- President Bush has never vetoed anything
An example of a signing statement from President Clinton seems to be in accord with what I think the purpose of a signing statement should be. He praises the points of the bill he agrees with. Then he states what he disagrees with, and what matters concern him. He says he is troubled by a provision requiring the Department of Defense to seek authorization before paying fines for environmental violations, but that he will direct them to comply, ensuring full accountability.
He does vaguely address one issue that could be taken multiple ways, saying that the bill prohibits the Deparment from contributing to the American Heritage Rivers initiative, but that he would direct the Department to continue to support community oriented service and environmental projects, within exisiting laws, on rivers that may be part of the initiative. Though vague, I understand this to mean that while he will not violate that prohibition, he intended to go around it to support the projects through a different means - which is basically his way of defending having signed the bill in the first place.
As of right now, I am unable to find examples of other presidential signing statements, to see how they have been used historically, but I did find many that tracked Bush's signing statements, and many people who are outraged by their use.
Boston.com News has 10 Examples of the President's Signing Statements:
March 9: Justice Department officials must give reports to Congress by certain dates on how the FBI is using the USA Patriot Act to search homes and secretly seize papers.
Bush's signing statement: The president can order Justice Department officials to withhold any information from Congress if he decides it could impair national security or executive branch operations.
Aug. 8: The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.
Bush's signing statement: The president or his appointees will determine whether employees of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give information to Congress.
Aug. 5: The military cannot add to its files any illegally gathered intelligence, including information obtained about Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.
Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can tell the military whether or not it can use any specific piece of intelligence.
FindLaw.com has an article titled The Problem with Presidential Signing Statements: Their Use and Misuse by the Bush Administration, which takes an in-depth look at how Bush has used them. I think this paragraph sums up the problem nicely:
This kind of expansive use of a signing statement presents not only Presentment Clause problems, but also clashes with the Constitutional implication that a veto is the President's only and exclusive avenue to prevent a bill's becoming law. The powers of foot-dragging and resistance-by-signing-statement, are not mentioned in the Constitution alongside the veto, after all. Congress wanted to impeach Nixon for impounding money he thought should not be spent. Telling Congress its laws do not apply makes Nixon's impounding look like cooperation with Congress, by comparison.
FindLaw also has a couple of other interesting columns related to specific uses of signing statements by Bush. How Much Authority Does the President Possess When He Is Acting as "Commander In Chief"? and The Unitary Executive: Is The Doctrine Behind the Bush Presidency Consistent with a Democratic State?.
It's really easy when reading about these things to let your eyes glaze over and assume that, as a democracy, the United States would never let Bush abuse his power this way, and that maybe these signing statments are silly little tantrums on the part of President Bush. Remember though, that even though he's issued over 750 signing statements, he has never vetoed any bill crossing his desk.
It's enough to make you think maybe there's something to the article Top 10 Signs of the Impending U.S. Police State.