President Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill's provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who's right? Both, to some extent.
During the Bush years, "signing statements" came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.
But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama's position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don't agree with the ABA's blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court's 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president's only recourse is to veto the bill--and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There's a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.
Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there's at least one that looks particularly dodgy:
United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.
Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president's authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:
Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president's commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success.... That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration's legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution's limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government....
You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.