Rebuking his predecessor for the second time today, President Obama declared that he will not use "signing statements" to disregard parts of laws because he disagrees on policy grounds, but only when he strongly believes the provisions are unconstitutional.
In a presidential memo (read it here), Obama also ordered his top executive branch officials to seek advice from Attorney General Eric Holder about whether to enforce the hundreds of statements proffered by Bush that critics say he used to ignore bills properly passed by Congress and expand his power, particularly on national security.
"There is no doubt that the practice of issuing such statements can be abused. Constitutional signing statements should not be used to suggest that the president will disregard statutory requirements on the basis of policy disagreements," wrote Obama, who also overturned Bush's restrictions today on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
"I will issue signing statements to address constitutional concerns only when it is appropriate to do so as a means of discharging my constitutional responsibilities," Obama pledged.
The president also promised to "take appropriate and timely steps, whenever practicable" to let Congress know of his constitutional concerns about bills before they pass. He also said he would clearly lay out his constitutional objection in any signing statements he does issue; Bush was harshly criticized for issuing signing statements with vague reasons.
A series of stories in the Globe, which eventually won the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor, pointed out that Bush used signing statements to disobey hundreds of bills approved by Congress on a wide range of issues.
They emerged as an issue after he used such statements to suggest he could bypass a law on harsh interrogations of terrorism detainees, and a law requiring the FBI to tell Congress how it was using expanded police powers under the Patriot Act. Bush also issued them on a wide range of issues including affirmative action, immigration, whistle-blower protections, and safeguards against political interference in scientific research. The statements are official documents, recorded in the federal register, in which the president lays out his legal interpretation of a bill for the federal bureaucracy to follow.
During the presidential campaign, Obama blasted Bush for how he used signing statements, but reserved the right to issue them, himself, in a more restrained way. Republican presidential John McCain said he would not use them at all.
While the Bush administration firmly defended its use of the statements as lawful and appropriate, they generated a vigorous debate on Capitol Hill and legal circles. The American Bar Association passed a resolution urging Bush and future presidents not to "misuse" them to disregard laws, calling such statements "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs asserted today that Obama will return to the traditional way the statements have been used "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."
"I think the previous administration issued hundreds and hundreds of signing statements that specifically entailed ...that people disregard portions of legislation or the intent of Congress," Gibbs told reporters. "This president will use signing statements in order to go back to what has previously been done, and that is to enumerate constitutional problems ... but not ask that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.