Monday, February 15, 2010

Obama, Executive Power & Signing Statements

What are signing statements? They are statements made by the President appended to acts of Congress the President has signed into law. Notwithstanding the President's approval, the President does have the prerogative to add a statement if he believes certain legislative provisions encroach on executive authority.

Charlie Savage, now a Washington based correspondent for The New York Times, wrote about President Bush's extensive use of signing statements while with The Boston Globe. These articles would subsequently become a book titled Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency & the Subversion of American Democracy. Savage would win a Pullitzer Prize for the book.

After reading Takeover I had an opportunity to question Savage about his work. This led to an article I wrote in October 2007. Consider this passage:

During his talk, Savage mentioned he had only been in Washington since 2003 and thus has only covered the Bush Administration. He also mentioned that signing statements “are not a partisan issue.” Still, it remains to be seen whether Savage will be as dogged in his investigations should a Democrat be elected to the White House in 2008.

Should that happen and if Savage writes another book equally critical of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and their use of the signing statement then one could argue that Savage is at least being consistent, if not necessarily accurate in his assessment of signing statements and presidential power. However, if he is not as vigorous when Democrats in charge on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it will once again confirm the inherent liberal biases of the mainstream media. His work will be little more than yet another effort to get the Bush Administration for the sake of getting the Bush Administration.

When Barack Obama was running for the White House he decried President Bush for his use of singing statements calling them "an end run around Congress." Of course, this hasn't stopped President Obama from using signing statements now that he has the right to use them. In 2009, he utilized signing statements on eight occasions including with the Stimulus Bill.

Now consider this excerpt from an article that appeared on Friday in The New York Times:

Already, Mr. Obama has had to reconcile his campaign-trail criticism of Mr. Bush for excessive use of so-called signing statements to bypass parts of legislation with his own use of such tactics. After a bipartisan furor in Congress last year, Mr. Obama stopped issuing such signing statements, but aides said last month that he still reserves the right to ignore sections of bills he considers unconstitutional if objections have been lodged previously by the executive branch.

So while President Obama might not formally utilize a signing statement that doesn't mean he won't assert his executive authority if he believes legislative provisions overstep Congressional authority. BTW, I find nothing wrong with Obama doing just that. So what does Savage have to say with regard to Obama's approach vis a vis signing statments? Here's what he wrote last month:

The Obama administration is lowering the volume in a long-running argument between Congress and the executive branch over when, if ever, a president has the power to bypass federal statutes he has signed into law.

Legal scholars said the administration’s new approach, which avoids repeating claims of executive power that the White House has previously voiced, could avoid setting off fights with lawmakers. But the approach will make it harder to keep track of which statutes the White House believes it can disregard, or to compare the number of laws challenged by President Obama with former President George W. Bush’s record.

Well, the Obama Administration isn't so much as "lowering the volume" as he is keeping things off the record. While Savage acknowledges that Obama is being much sneakier with regard to the exercise of his powers somehow I don't think Savage will be inspired to write a book about Obama's use of executive authority. If he does then I don't think he'll win another Pullitzer.

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