Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sigh-ing Statements

I'm as concerned about executive overreach as the next guy, but I'm just not getting the outrage over President Obama's latest signing statement. To begin with, am I the only one who remembers that there is no such thing as a Presidential "Czar?" This is a shorthand developed by media and bloggers to mean presidential advisor. As Atrios often says, no one can follow everything and no one man can be an expert in everything. Yet a President is responsible for all policy outcomes. Are people seriously arguing he, (or someday she), shouldn't be allowed to choose expert advisors to help them make decisions? Criticizing the choice of advisors is one thing, suggesting they shouldn't be allowed to have them strikes me as unrealistic.

I'm posting about this because John Cole bought into the outrage, calling a clear Obama flip flop. He's riffing off Jake Tapper, who apparently is a mission lately to make Obama out to be a total hypocrite, with selective quotes. I was surprised Cole bought into it without recalling the context himself, which to be fair, Jake supplied via embedded links, and added to, in this later post. Maybe John Cole didn't read the entire quote from that interview:
4. Under what circumstances, if any, would you sign a bill into law but also issue a signing statement reserving a constitutional right to bypass the law?

Signing statements have been used by presidents of both parties, dating back to Andrew Jackson. While it is legitimate for a president to issue a signing statement to clarify his understanding of ambiguous provisions of statutes and to explain his view of how he intends to faithfully execute the law, it is a clear abuse of power to use such statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like or as an end-run around provisions designed to foster accountability.

I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law. The problem with this administration is that it has attached signing statements to legislation in an effort to change the meaning of the legislation, to avoid enforcing certain provisions of the legislation that the President does not like, and to raise implausible or dubious constitutional objections to the legislation. The fact that President Bush has issued signing statements to challenge over 1100 laws – more than any president in history – is a clear abuse of this prerogative. No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president's constitutional prerogatives; unfortunately, the Bush Administration has gone much further than that.
So in fact, Obama did not say he would never use signing statements. Moreover, as the link Jake later supplies show, signing statements date back to the early 19th century, though it was "President Reagan [who] initiated this practice in earnest." Reagan issued 250, with 86 of them raising constitutional challenges. The ratios of the following presidents were, George H. W. Bush 228/107, Clinton 381/70 and George W. Bush 152/118. But note: "The significant rise in the proportion of constitutional objections made by President Bush is compounded by the fact that these statements are typified by multiple objections, resulting in more than 1,000 challenges to distinct provisions of law." This is what Obama was talking about in 2007. Context matters.

Addtionally, the cited study notes that signing statements on their face, are not unconstitutional. It's the grounds cited for their use and the effects of their application that matter. In fact, they seem to be a necessary tool to protect a president from Congressional fiats issued for reasons of political pandering and/or pure spite, which both would seem to apply to the present case with Obama.

None of this is to say the process doesn't require oversight, both Congressional and by citizens, since as made obvious by Bush, the process can be abused and needs to be countered when it is. However, it seems to me, this is not the hill on which to fight that battle. If we're going to bash Obama, let's do it for reasons that really matter and not inure the unengaged public to the actual dangers with little issues of small import. [graphic credit]

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