In another break with his predecessor’s expansive view of executive power, President Barack Obama is ordering federal agencies to disregard so-called signing statements where George W. Bush disagreed with bills he signed.
Bush used signing statements to express differences with about 1,200 items in legislation passed during his eight years in office. In many instances, he told federal agencies they should ignore the offending provisions.
However, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama had issued a memorandum essentially nullifying Bush’s signing statements by telling agencies not to rely on them without consulting with the Justice Department.
But as with other distinctions Obama has drawn with Bush, the new president is not making an entirely clean break. He is reserving his right to issue signing statements when he sees fit, though he is pledging to be more sparing in his use of the tactic.
“I think the previous administration issued hundreds and hundreds of signing statements that….specifically entailed through those signing statements people disregarding portions of legislation or the intent of Congress,” Gibbs said.
“This president will use signing statements in order to go back to what has previously been done — that is to enumerate Constitutional problems that either the Justice Department or legislative counsel here see as a potential problems with their reading — but not ask that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat.”
Bush’s frequent use of the statements drew rebukes from Democratic lawmakers, as well as a variety of civil liberties and legal groups, including the American Bar Association.
Gibbs said there was a long history of such statements of presidential dissent. He also argued that Congress was, in part, to blame for the proliferation of signing statements because of the trend towards packaging legislation into huge bills which can run to thousands of pages and include a myriad of unrelated provisions. That makes it awkward for a president to veto a bill over relatively minor provisions that he considered problematic.
“Signing statements have been in existence for two centuries in order for presidents to make known Constitutional problems with ideas that are in legislation, without necessarily dealing a veto to the entire piece of legislation,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, the proliferation of omnibus legislation has made that even more prevalent.”
Obama was actually less strident in his opposition to signing statements than his Republican opponent in 2008, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain said flatly that he would not issue them under any circumstances.