The omnibus gets a signing statement

The presidential practice that became rather scandalous during the Bush/Cheney era hasn’t gone away completely.

When President Obama signed a budget bill on Friday, he issued a signing statement claiming a right to bypass dozens of provisions that placed requirements or restrictions on the executive branch, saying he had “well-founded constitutional objections” to the new statutes.

Among them, he singled out two sections barring the use of money to transfer prisoners from the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the United States and limiting the ability of the government to transfer them to the custody or control of foreign countries. Mr. Obama said he would apply them in a way that avoided infringing on his powers, without any specific explanation of what that meant.

He also singled out 14 provisions that he said infringed upon his power to conduct foreign affairs…. “I have advised the Congress that I will not treat these provisions as limiting my constitutional authorities in the area of foreign relations,” Mr. Obama wrote.

There are plenty of angles to consider with developments like these. Right off the bat, there’s the question of the propriety of signing statements themselves.

As has been well documented, signing statements are not a new presidential tool, and while usage has varied throughout administrations, this power is nearly as old as the presidency itself.

But regardless of party, there’s cause for concern — this is a practice that’s easily abused. Ideally, Congress would pass legislation and if a president (any president) has significant enough concerns about the scope of its provisions, he or she would have to decide between signing the bill and vetoing it. Signing statements can quickly turn into an effort to find a third category: the president likes the bulk of the bill, but can issue a signing statement to note some language within legislation that doesn’t quite work for him or her.

Bush took these abuses to levels unseen in American history. Obama’s not in his predecessor’s league — many of his signing statements relate to Congress exceeding its authority over the executive branch — though criticism that he took a different line on signing statements before taking office seems more than fair.

But of particular interest in yesterday’s announcement was the Gitmo measure. The Obama administration has taken plenty of heat from the left for not having closed the detention facility, but this is a reminder that the president’s position has not changed at all — Obama wanted to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay before the election, he wanted the same thing soon after taking office, and he wants the same thing now. Congress, including members from both parties, have taken a series of steps to severely restrict the White House’s options, and even in the omnibus, told the president he can’t transfer detainees from the facility.

Concerns over signing statements notwithstanding, I’m glad Obama is still prepared to move prisoners out of Gitmo, hastening, one hopes, its eventual closure.