Reigniting the debate over signing statements

REIGNITING THE DEBATE OVER SIGNING STATEMENTS…. President Obama signed the budget deal for the fiscal year into law on Friday night, but issued a signing statement at the same time. This has renewed an interesting debate, not only about presidential power, but also about presidential consistency.

At Republicans’ insistence, the budget agreement included a provision scrapping certain “czar” offices in the administration. Obama signed the legislation, of course, but let Congress know that he retains “the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities,” and may solicit such advice “not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it.”

In other words, “I’m the president and I’ll continue to seek policy guidance from my aides — whether Congress likes it or not.”

By any reasonable definition, it’s a garbage provision in the law. Republicans know this “czar” dust-up is ridiculous — Bush had even more “czars” than Obama does, and the GOP never complained about it — and the notion that Congress will dictate the kind of advisers a president will have is not only silly, it seems to be plainly at odds with the separation of powers.

But putting aside whether the measure has merit, as a presidential candidate, Obama criticized Bush’s use of signing statements — and yet here is issuing signing statements of his own. Those arguing that there’s a contradiction here raise a legitimate point.

That said, the details matter here. Before the ’08 election, Obama, who taught constitutional law, criticized Bush’s abuse of this power, but the emphasis was on how the Republican president exploited the practice. Administrations of both parties have been using signing statements for 200 years, but Bush used them in ways none of his predecessors ever did.

With that in mind, the Obama White House had a reasonable case to make yesterday when it insisted there is no contradiction.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama’s use of signing statements as president is “actually entirely consistent with what he’s said and with our policy.”

Carney pointed to a 2007 interview Obama gave to then Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, who won a Pulitzer Prize that same year for his reporting on Bush’s use of signing statements. […]

“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,” Obama said [in that 2007 interview].

I can appreciate why this seems like hair-splitting argument, but the context matters. The signing statement on Friday was in keeping with the standard Obama talked about four years ago — he’s protecting a president’s constitutional prerogatives, in this case, who the president relies on as part of his team of aides and advisers.

If candidate Obama had said he would never use signing statements, and President Obama is doing the opposite, the criticism would certainly be warranted. But I think there’s some relevant nuance to all of this. Obama criticized Bush’s abuses, but otherwise, the president seems to be using this power in roughly the same way as all of his modern predecessors.