The Sock-It Veto

Lexicon | Politics

Since Ronald Reagan, U.S. Presidents have added "signing statements" onto laws to indicate how (or whether) they expect to enforce them. Two weeks ago in the Boston Globe, Charlie Savage reported on the 750 signing statements of the current President Bush, which have come at a pace several times that of his father and President Clinton. This story has caught on, but perhaps not as quckly as one might think, for a couple of reasons. First is that it has been just one of many troubles battering the current Administration. Second, and what interests me, is that the phenomenon has yet to win a pet name. The common name for the effective veto as described by Article I, Section 7 has been popularly known as the "pocket veto." This I’d like to call the "sock-it veto."

[Note: I originally sketched this out on Radio Open Source, and I reproduced the post here. An earlier introduction was re-worked into the paragraph above. The post was addressed to the ROS host Chris Lydon, as well as the show’s producers.]

I’m at wit’s end about the utility of the Radio Open Source forum. It’s popularly imagined as "social media," the goals of which are generally to win friends and influence people.

My model is different; I’ve been calling it constructive media. What constructive media demands is that the best, most original points float to the top, and any points that requests a response gets one. This forum technology has long needed an overhaul, but if we buy into that model, we can make it work that way with a little more effort.

I listened to all but the last five minutes of the show today (waiting for the file to hear the rest), but it seems like you missed an absolute gem. I happened to champion it which is why I’m following up here.

You had on the very laywer who was part counsel to these interpretations of law. So here was the chance to ask a question: What does the President really think about the law? Ok, we’re cynics, we don’t suppose he’d be able to tell Felix Frankfurter from Warren Burger without making a joke about cole slaw. But indulge us. We know from the debates, that, when pressed, he came down pretty solidly against the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which any high school student could point out was rendered moot by the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. We know what sort of judges he favors — the "STAR" team of Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts. What about the the law itself? Here is the image that Francisco painted: the President is furrowing his brow, weighing the utmost matters of life and death, freedom and security, the balance of which are held by our national Constitution.

and what does he think about this most sacred document, when it’s on the line?

"It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!"

Not my quote, I’m just passing it along from Doug Thompson, who has this triple-sourced. You celebrate independent journalists, bloggers-or-otherwise, and you scoff at the mainstream media for ignoring them. This quote wouldn’t ever have made it into the Times or the Post; mostly because it wouldn’t fit in the context of traditional news reporting. Yet you take a pass as well here.

And it was the perfect opportunity and the right context. The President’s former lawyer here is arguing how much he has the Constitution at heart, while he goes about executing a "sock it" veto over 750 laws that Congress passes.

"It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!"

Let me spell it out. If the "piece of paper" doesn’t matter, why is his lawyer defending the President’s decisions based on that very document?

Now, maybe Bush really meant it. Maybe he said that the whole of America– the people, the ideals, the interstate highway system, the freedom to be ignored and the freedom to be ignorant– is greater than a piece of paper (er, parchment, the United States Constitution is written on parchment, how ill-informed is this guy?) Of course, if that’s what he meant, that in and of itself would have been worth exploring. We’d just have to change the oath of office.

Chris, you kept carving out hypotheticals about what sort of laws might be written next (as did Francisco, but his were antebellum). But take a look at the actual signing statements: The Congress can appropriate moneys, for research, and the findings can be censored? DoE and NRC employees are not entitled to whistleblower protection? The question needs to be pursued, as Savage did in his article: if this is happening, what is the point of Congress?

Here’s how to atone. What we do here online is, we seek out "semiotic paperweights" to neatly organize our paper trails, and I submit this "sock-it veto" as a new one. Now, a popular national newspaper columnist might read an email from you before he reads one from me. Maybe a little pointer to this thread will inspire him to post his Sunday column about the sock-it veto and that "dammned piece of paper." The great Decider will go from defending the Secretary of Defense, to defending what he thinks about the Constitution itself. That’ll be a leap of faith.

And if any of this gets into a Stephen Colbert routine, I’ll do my duty as an American and laugh. Sock it to me.

[The show on Colbert was the previous night. I made it clear to the ROS community that it was utterly insignificant when compared to this, and that it could have been done better as well.]

Update, May 14th 2006: Producer Brendan Greeley and I carried on the discussion over email, and we also caught up in person at the Beyond Broadcast conference. Essentially, he told me that he couldn’t ascertain quickly enough the reliability of that quote. Which is of course the problem of the Internet, still. Readers often need to make split decisions about the quality of information. Often they go on brand. But if it’s an unknown brand, a new system of verifying trust is needed.

Also, I fixed the introduction to this piece to set the context correctly.