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The Harbinger of the Unitary Executive? An Analysis of Presidential Signing Statements from Truman to Carter


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am grateful to David Glass of the University of Florida for his research assistance.

Richard S. Conley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida (Gainesville). His recent publications include The Historical Dictionary of the George W. Bush Era (2010).


Contemporary scholarship has focused much attention on presidents' routine exploitation of signing statements since the 1980s to disallow provisions of bills passed by Congress. Much less is known about earlier post–World War II presidents' use of signing statements and what precedents they may have set for their successors. This study takes a sharp focus on the 934 signing statements issued from 1945 to 1980, from Presidents Harry Truman through Jimmy Carter. The analysis classifies these signing statements by policy area and by the type of comments the president made. The results accentuate how the resurgent Congress in the 1970s—including budget reform and challenges to presidential latitude in foreign policy through legislative vetoes—compelled Presidents Gerald Ford and Carter to increasingly use signing statements to nullify legislative provisos. The analysis emphasizes how cycles of congressional change affected earlier presidents' use of signing statements, laying a foundation for their successors' more broad manipulation of this rhetorical instrument to aggrandize executive prerogative.