Expecting consistency from left-wing political activists is folly, but rarely does one get such a glaring example as the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen on presidential “signing statements.” Watch, and your head will spin.
During the Bush years, liberal commentators suddenly discovered that they didn’t like the longstanding practice of “signing statements” by which the President offered his own interpretation of legislation he was signing, in some cases declaring his intention to ignore unconstitutional provisions. Now, in a better world, presidents would just veto laws containing unconstitutional things – this was, in fact, perhaps the most frequent basis on which presidents used the veto power in the 19th Century – but the use of signing statements to set forth a public defense of Executive Branch prerogatives has a long and bipartisan history, and there is a quite respectable argument that such statements preserve the President’s role as head of a co-equal branch of government with as much right to his interpretation of the Constitution as Congress or the Supreme Court.
Anyway, Steve Benen was one of the liberal bloggers who pushed the anti-signing-statements hysteria without consideration that there was any argument for defending the practice whatsoever:
July 3, 2007:
MAKING A STATEMENT….Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has caved to White House demands on a wide variety of issues, but when it comes to presidential signing statements, the Pennsylvania senator has actually been pretty good. A year ago, he even tried to introduce legislation that would allow Congress to sue the president over his use of these legally dubious documents. He asked at the time, “What’s the point of having a statute if … the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn’t like? … If he doesn’t like the bill, let him veto it.”
We have a bizarre dynamic at play: Congress passes bills, Bush signs the bills into law, and then, in several instances, after the president issues signing statements, the Bush administration decides not to do what the law mandates.
Specter added, “If the president is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our framers.”
To which the White House apparently responded, “Duh.”
October 15, 2008:
REMEMBER SIGNING STATEMENTS?…. There are plenty of reasons to look forward to the end of Bush’s presidency, but I’m especially pleased at the prospect of having a president who won’t sign bills into law, only to announce soon after which parts of the law he plans to ignore.
March 9, 2009:
SIGNING STATEMENTS…. It’s hard to know where to start when detailing George W. Bush’s assaults on constitutional norms, but near the top of any list would have to be his signing statements. The former president used them to give laws passed by Congress a little “touch up,” explaining which parts of the law he didn’t like, which parts he’d ignore, etc.
Today, President Obama issued a message to administration officials regarding Bush’s signing statements: feel free to ignore them.
But even at the outset of the Obama Administration, Benen was suddenly untroubled by the idea that Obama was going to use signing statements for the same basic purpose:
Obama said he would consider using signing statements as president, but would take a modest approach, and limit them to bills that include provisions of dubious constitutionality.
Which brings us to…
June 20, 2011, “Taking a hatchet to presidential power“
Also note, the same day as this letter about recesses, House Republicans also began pushing a measure to prevent the president from issuing “signing statements” – another power presidents have been using for generations.
What I find remarkable about all of this is comparing the seriousness of the times and the severity of the GOP’s restrictions. In effect, President Obama is being told, “You have to fix the economy, win several wars, fix the housing crisis, respond to disasters, improve American energy policy, and keep the country safe, all while being fiscally responsible. But you can’t have a full team in place; you can’t enjoy the same powers your predecessors did; you can’t use the same tools your predecessors used; and you can’t expect the Senate to function by majority rule the way it used to. Good luck.”
This is no way to run an advanced democracy in the 21st century.
Good thing President Bush wasn’t expected to solve any difficult problems, never had his appointees bottled up in the Senate, and never had anybody try to stop him from using longstanding presidential powers like signing statements! Because Steve Benen would have been there to tell them off!