Monday, March 9, 2009

Obama Orders Review of Bush Signing Statements

Much of today's news focused on President Obama's reversal of Bush's federal funding ban on stem cell research.

But Obama made one other move significant which has attracted considerably less fanfare. The President has sent a memo to Executive Branch personnel advising them to seek the advice of Attorney General where it concerns the enforcement of signing statements made by President Bush.

What exactly is a signing statement? It is nothing more than a written statement by the President appended to a bill signed into a law. Signing statements are often used if the White House believes Congress has encroached in areas that are the responsibility of the Executive Branch as set out in the Constitution.

However, when President Bush was in power the Left (as well as some conservatives) saw signing statements as a sign of "an Imperial Presidency." Charlie Savage, formerly of The Boston Globe, wrote a book about the Bush Administration and signing statements titled Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and The Subversion of Democracy. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. I reviewed the book in October 2007.

Savage cites the work of Christopher Kelley, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, to support his contention about President Bush's use of the signing statement. While Kelley states unequivocally that President Bush used the signing statement more than any other President he insists that Bush utilized the signing statement no differently than any other President. So the Boston Globe is incorrect when it asserts:

Bush - often with little if any public notice - issued signing statements far more often than other presidents and used them to disobey more than 750 bills approved by Congress.

In preparation for my review of Savage's book I contacted Kelley and asked him if signing statements freed the President from obeying the law. Kelley told me:

It is simply wrong to say the president can refuse enforcement of whatever he wants....These signing statements always couch the challenge inside a specific constitutional power.

For his part, President Obama has not ruled out the use of signing statements and I wouldn't expect him to do so. Just don't expect Charlie Savage and The Boston Globe to call Obama out on his use of signing statements.

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