Obama Makes Use of Signing Statements Article

The Wall Street Journal | March 11, 2009
By Jonathan Weisman

WASHINGTON -- Democrats often criticized the Bush White House for its use of the presidential signing statement, a means by which the president can reject provisions of a bill he deems unconstitutional without vetoing the entire legislation. Now the approach is back.

President Barack Obama, after signing into law a $410 billion budget bill on Wednesday, declared five provisions in the bill to be unconstitutional and non-binding, including one that would effectively restrict U.S. troop deployments under U.N. command and another aimed at preventing punishment of whistleblowers.

The move came two days after Mr. Obama ordered a review of his predecessor's signing statements and said he would rein in the use of such declarations.

"As I announced this past Monday, it is a legitimate constitutional function, and one that promotes the value of transparency, to indicate when a bill that is presented for Presidential signature includes provisions that are subject to well-founded constitutional objections," Mr. Obama said in the statement.

Democrats, and some Republicans, complained that former President George W. Bush abused the signing statement by declaring that he would ignore congressional intent on more than 1,200 sections of bills, easily a record. Critics at the time said that if the president had constitutional questions, he should veto the bill and demand a correction.

Mr. Bush's successor showed Wednesday that he isn't averse to using the same methods.

"We're having a repeat of what Democrats bitterly complained about under President Bush," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R, Pa.), who drafted legislation to nullify Mr. Bush's signing statements. He added that if Mr. Obama "wants to pick a fight, Congress has plenty of authority to retaliate."

Mr. Obama objected to one provision that would bar funding for the deployment of U.S. troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions under foreign command without the president's advice that such involvement is in the national interest.

"This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions," the president said. "Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority."

Mr. Obama objected to another provision that would cut the salary of any federal officials who interfere with a whistleblower's communications with Congress. The president declared that the provision would not prevent his administration from supervising, controlling or correcting "employees' communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential."

"This is alarming," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa). "The words 'privileged' and 'confidential' could cover just about anything the White House doesn't want released. It looks like the new era of transparency is over before it began."

More broadly, Mr. Obama rejected demands that federal agencies reallocating appropriated funds first get explicit approval from congressional committees. "Spending decisions shall not be treated as dependent on the approval of congressional committees," the signing statement said.