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Bush exempts himself from law Opening mail without a warrant fits pattern of reserving powers

Something within President Bush isn't entirely comfortable with the idea of democratic government. He's shown that allergy in dozens of ways over the past six years, including the "signing statements" he loves so much. He issued another one last month.

Presidents sometimes include signing statements when they approve legislation. They are meant to establish how the executive branch intends to interpret the measure, but Bush has used them more often and for more surreptitious purposes than any of his predecessors. The most recent explained when the administration would obey the law about not opening other people's mail.

Critics say a signing statement Bush attached to a postal reform act might have created a way for the government to open mail without a warrant. The measure says government representatives need warrants to open first-class mail, but Bush's statement says the administration will interpret that "in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances." What that says is that the Bush administration will obey the law unless it believes it is important not to.

That would be troubling no matter who was president, but given Bush's history of shooting first and asking questions later, who can have any confidence that this administration will limit itself to truly extraordinary circumstances?

What is more, the mail is not e-mail; it moves more slowly. By definition, its contents cannot be so urgent that the law enforcement officials couldn't obtain a warrant.

Signing statements may have a legitimate use, but no president -- especially this one -- should be free to issue them as cavalierly as Bush has. Power in democracy demands a leash. The Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances that Bush has disrupted.

Congress needs to rein in the executive branch. The Democrats in control of the House and Senate should hold hearings on this subject with a goal of crafting legislation that limits the use of signing statements to legitimate purposes, consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. No doubt, Bush would veto any such legislation, but that's his right. The Constitution says so.

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