Let me be clear** at the outset of this post that there is no objectively valid reason whatsoever to object to the use of Presidential Signing Statements, whether it is done by Republicans or Democrats. It is axiomatic that in the course of executing the laws that Congress has passed, the Executive Branch, as a co-equal branch, must necessarily interpret the law before deciding what the law requires them to do.
The Executive Branch then has two choices: either disclose their interpretations in a signing statement, or not disclose them in a signing statement. The implementation of the law will be exactly the same in either case, it’s just that in one case, the Executive Branch helpfully indicates to Congress and the world what their intentions are, in case Congress wants to go back and revise/clarify the law in question. To the extent that any given Presidential Signing Statement indicates any sort of problematic interpretation of the law, the problem is the interpretation itself, not the signing statement announcing it. Anyone who would actually think that a President’s willingness to tip his hand to Congress and the public about the way he will implement a law indicates any sort of arrogation of power in the Executive Branch is either an idiot or someone who doesn’t place much stock in thinking through the consequences of their positions.
Unfortunately, Obama’s campaign was all about appealing to people who don’t think through the consequences of their positions. And so on the campaign trail, it was expedient for Obama to appeal to the herd by sanctimoniously lecturing the Bush administration on the evils of Presidential Signing Statements, and promising unequivocally not to use them.
The only problem with this promise is that, like most Obama promises, he had no intention of actually keeping it. And so the NY Times reports that some Democratic members of Congress find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being forced to criticize their own President over something that they must surely know is BS.
Again the important part of this story is not the Presidential Signing Statements themselves, which are and always have been a red herring. The important part of the story is that it illustrates that there was nothing Obama would not demagogue in the service of his own election as President, no promise however shallow and meaningless he would not make in service of a vote. Now that he has the office he has spent his whole life seeking, he shows no indication of actually keeping any of them. As the Times notes, Obama’s actions as President are absolutely identical to the actions of the Bush administation that supposedly violated his principles as a professor and defender of the Constitution:
(More below the fold)
WASHINGTON — President Obama has issued signing statements claiming the authority to bypass dozens of provisions of bills enacted into law since he took office, provoking mounting criticism by lawmakers from both parties.
Still, since taking office, Mr. Obama has relaxed his criteria for what kinds of signing statements are appropriate. And last month several leading Democrats — including Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and David R. Obey of Wisconsin — sent a letterto Mr. Obama complaining about one of his signing statements.
“During the previous administration, all of us were critical of the president’s assertion that he could pick and choose which aspects of Congressional statutes he was required to enforce,” they wrote. “We were therefore chagrined to see you appear to express a similar attitude.”
They were reacting to a statement Mr. Obama issued after signing a bill that expanded assistance to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank while requiring the administration to pressure the organizations to adopt certain policies. Mr. Obama said he could disregard the negotiation instructions under his power to conduct foreign relations.
The administration protested that it planned to carry out the provisions anyway and that its statement merely expressed a general principle. But Congress was not mollified. On July 9, in a bipartisan rebuke, the House of Representatives voted 429 to 2 to ban officials from using federal money to disobey the restrictions. And in their July 21 letter, Mr. Frank and Mr. Obey — the chairmen of the Financial Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee — asked Mr. Obama to stop issuing such signing statements, warning that Congress might not approve more money for the banking organizations unless he agreed.
Other laws Mr. Obama has said he need not obey as written include format requirements for budget requests, limits on whom he may appoint to a commission, and a restriction on putting troops under United Nations command.
After Mr. Bush transformed signing statements from an obscure tool into a commonplace term, Mr. Obama’s willingness to use them has disappointed some who had hoped he would roll back the practice, not entrench it.
I haven’t taken the time to actually examine the Presidential Signing Statement that have gotten Barney Frank’s underpants in a bunch, but objecting to unconstitutional limits on who the President may appoint to certain positions sounds an awful lot like Obama is also wandering into the nefarious Unitary Executive Theory territory. Of course, there are Supreme Court precedents on point which indicate that while Congress might reject the President’s appointments to certain offices under certain circumstances, they cannot purport to limit the pool from which the President makes his nominations. Furthermore, it appears that Congress itself is to blame for much of the problem by continually and systematically passing legislation that runs afoul of the Constitution by including “legislative veto” provisions, in contradiction of INS v. Chadha. In other words, a cursory glance at the content of Obama’s signing statements reveals nothing more nor less than that the Obama administration intends to interpret and implement legislation that is passed in light of applicable Supreme Court precedent and the Administration’s understanding of its own Constitutional power. This should not be alarming to anyone in the slightest, but it was plenty alarming to liberals of all stripes when the evil Bush was in power, and Obama was at the forefront of that particular group of demagoguing liberals.
So the bottom line here is not about the Presidential Signing Statements themselves, it is that yet another Obama campaign promise appears to have had a remarkably short expiration date. Which, by this point in time, should probably not be new or alarming to anyone who has been paying attention either.
* “Always” being used euphemistically here for “usually.”
** Unlike Obama, I am not using this as a throat-clearing phrase to indicate that I’m about to lie through my teeth.