Two days after the Democrats took control of the House and Senate, they are already facing a challenge by this administration’s claim of “Unitary Powers.” This time it’s not our telecommunications they want to spy on, it’s our mail.

According to the Washington Post, “a ‘signing statement’ attached to a postal reform bill on December 20 says the Bush administration ‘shall construe’ a section of that law to allow the opening of sealed mail to protect life, guard against hazardous materials or conduct ‘physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.'” This move seems to have opened the door for the government to open mail without a warrant.

This makes more than 750 presidential signing statements, according to the Associated Press, by an Administration that has consistently tried to alter laws that it finds unpalatable. This total surpasses the number of signing statements issued by all American Presidents combined before #43. The threat to democracy is obvious if laws that members of Congress have crafted after research, debate and bipartisan negotiation can be gutted with a few strokes of the president’s pen.

Back to James Monroe, signing statements, usually innocuous comments, accompanied some bills after final passage. Since signing statements aren’t subject to congressional review or override, they are tantamount to unilaterally changing laws passed by the legislative branch. The problem is that, as Republican Senator Arlen Specter was moved to say last year, “this president has taken the signing statements far beyond the customary purviews.”

“That,” as the conservative daily Macon Telegraph politely editorialized today, “places entirely too much power in the hands of an executive.”

Read the Boston’s Globe‘s extremely useful survey of Bush Administration signing statements to date and click here to send a letter to your Senators asking them to support efforts to put the brakes on statements such as these.