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Signing Statements: Wrong Then, Wrong Now

Note: This post is dedicated to the Zone of Twilight, because I couldn’t find a way to contact that blog author directly. My message is that President Obama’s signing statements are still being posted to the reformatted Compilation of Presidential Documents.

A few days ago, I decided to search the official Federal Digital System to see if President Obama had started issuing “signing statements” that purported to void parts of legislation he didn’t agree with. I chose “advanced search”, then selected “Compilation of Presidential Documents”, set the date to only look at items published after 1/20/2009. I then searched for the term “statement on signing.” I was neither expecting nor hoping to find any results, but figured it was my duty to see if President Obama was doing one of the major things that incensed me about President Bush.

As of this writing, my search brought up nine hits. And some of them indeed say that the President intends to disregard statute sections he regards as unconstitutional. This may not be news to many of you because the first Obama signing statement was issued in March 2009 and there had been a significant amount of blog coverage. Somehow I missed it till now. I’m sorry about that, but I hadn’t consciously given President Obama a pass on this issue.

President Obama anticipated there would be controversy over his use of a tool that he criticized the Bush Administration using, so he issued a Memorandum on Presidential Signing Statements dated March 9, 2009. This memo defends the practice of signing statements while acknowledging their potential for abuse. To avoid abuse, President Obama offers four principles he will follow in considering whether to issue a signing statement:

1. The executive branch will take appropriate and timely steps, whenever practicable, to inform the Congress of its constitutional concerns about pending legislation. Such communication should facilitate the efforts of the executive branch and the Congress to work together to address these concerns during the legislative process, thus minimizing the number of occasions on which I am presented with an enrolled bill that may require a signing statement.

2. Because legislation enacted by the Congress comes with a presumption of constitutionality, I will strive to avoid the conclusion that any part of an enrolled bill is unconstitutional. In exercising my responsibility to determine whether a provision of an enrolled bill is unconstitutional, I will act with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded.

3. To promote transparency and accountability, I will ensure that signing statements identify my constitutional concerns about a statutory provision with sufficient specificity to make clear the nature and basis of the constitutional objection.

4. I will announce in signing statements that I will construe a statutory provision in a manner that avoids a constitutional problem only if that construction is a legitimate one.

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t good enough. Aside from number 3, I feel confident that President Bush would have agreed with and claimed that he practiced these principles. This memorandum appears to be another way of saying “trust me” in the face of expanded executive power. I’m not buying it.

When it comes to legislation passed by Congress, there are three and only three legitimate ways of dealing with it — Sign it, Veto it, or Sue after signing. Our system of government gives the judicial branch the responsibility of interpreting law and deciding what is and is not constitutional. Letting the executive decide which part of the laws it will execute was wrong under Bush and its just as wrong as Obama.

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If you don’t want to go through the search screens listed above, you can find a handy list of Obama signing statements at http://www.coherentbabble.com/listBHOall.htm. I still don’t know what bothers me more — that the President is continuing this practice or that it took me nine months to figure it out.

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3 Responses

  1. Absolutelyl agree! I was, and for the most part still am, a strong Obama supporter. But signing statement just should not be allowed, for any president at any time.

  2. Is there a place to find more recent signing statements??

  3. Hi Hanna, Thanks for stopping by. According to both the “Coherent Babble” blog list at http://www.coherentbabble.com/listBHOall.htm, and the Federal Digital System at http://www.fdsys.gov, the most recent Obama signing statement as of 1/31/2010 was issued on November 11, 2009 for the S. 475, the “Military Spouses Residency Relief Act”.

    If you have reason to believe there is a more recent signing statement than that, please come back and leave the name of the bill he signed. Thanks.

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