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Signing Statements: The Expansion of Presidential Power

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

Materials Needed:

Time Needed:


Step 1: Background and Context

Write the following questions on the board or overhead projector. Pair students up to discuss each of the following questions and record the main points, and then have several student groups report to the class.

  1. Have students refer to the Constitution's delegation of powers to the legislative branch (Article I, Sections 1 and 8) and the executive branch (Article II, Section 2).
  2. Discuss with students the roles and responsibilities of each branch in matters of national security. Discuss the language of the Constitution and its specificity, or lack thereof, in describing the powers of the two branches.
  3. Point out to students that national security responsibilities can involve military, diplomatic, and economic actions.

Step 2: Focus on the Signing Statements

  1. Review with students the film's definition of a signing statement: "A signing statement is a technical, legal document that a president enters into the Federal Register on the day he signs a bill into law. It consists of instructions to the executive branch about how they are to implement this law now that it's on the books."
  2. Distribute the Viewing Questions handout to students and instruct them to answer the questions on the handout after they view the film clip.
  3. Show Chapter 6 "Battle of the Lawyers" from the film at: You can show the entire eight-minute clip, or begin at 3:48 with the visual of a motorcade and the narrator's statement: "By this time, the vice president found himself engaged in a new struggle with Congress..." The clip ends with: "I'm not going to obey all your laws." A copy of the transcript is at:
  4. After viewing the clip, and having students complete their handout questions, discuss the questions as a large group.
  5. Divide the class into two large groups and assign one group Scenario A and the other Scenario B from the "What To Do?" student handouts.
  6. Distribute the appropriate student handouts for Scenarios A and B to each group.
  7. Then have each group divide again into two groups: one will play the role of the executive branch and the other will play the role of Congress.
  8. Review the directions with all groups. Make sure they understand their mission is to develop a policy that addresses the scenario they've been assigned according to the needs and desires of the branch they represent. Also review the "Questions to Consider" and the "Procedure for Meeting with the Other Branch" on the handouts.
  9. Have students meet in their own branch first to develop their policy to address the scenario they've been assigned.
  10. After students have developed their policy, have them meet with their counterpart branch and follow the directions in their handout to discuss each side's position and come to an agreement on the policy. It's possible that they may not be able to agree, but they should keep in mind that the only other way to find resolution would be to ask the courts to settle the issue.
  11. Acting as a moderator, have each of the group pairs representing the executive branch and Congress present their agreement or disagreements to the class. Anyone can ask questions or make comments during this discussion.

Assessment Recommendations

  1. Assess student involvement in the discussion questions and activities.
  2. Evaluate student participation in the background and context discussion.
  3. Evaluate student participation in their role-playing groups and presentation of their policy statement.