Opinion: Obama signs papers promising not to sign so many papers


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President Obama today signed a document countermanding some documents signed by his predecessor and saying he won’t sign so many other documents like that called signing documents.

This is another one of those little-known nifty Washington gadgets that cause the Real World out here to stare and go, ‘Say what?’


A signing document is basically an addendum that a president signs after signing legislation saying, in effect, yes, I know I signed this legislation but I really don’t like/disagree with/suspect are unconstitutional/or all of the above the following parts.

This is basically his instructions/permission to the vast D.C. bureaucracy to ignore the disputed parts, even though the people’s elected representatives passed it and the nation’s chief executive officially signed it allegedly into law -- albeit with a Washington wink.

No, really. Like signing and initialing those 142 pages for your mortgage but telling the bank officer you don’t like the one on page 67 so won’t pay on time and he says, ‘Okey-doke.’ Sure, that’ll work well outside Fantasyland. Don’t try too hard to understand it; it makes sense ITB (Inside the Beltway).

Bill Clinton actually used signing documents way more than George W. Bush. But No. 42 is a Democrat and his wife currently works for Obama. So No. 44 is on a big tear right now to distance himself instead from No. 43, the Republican, who’s back in Texas and doesn’t care but just hearing his name trashed makes Democrats feel good. (See, also more Bush distancing in The Ticket on today’s stem cell changes here.)

Our blogging buddy Frank James has more on this special D.C. gimmick over here. The losing Republican candidate last fall, Sen. John McCain, promised never ever to use them, if elected, because he thinks they’re dishonest. And if you don’t like the legislation, you should veto it, not go around back and ignore it. Obviously, the naive McCain just fell off the turnip cart. That’s why he’s still a senator.

N.B., as they say in academe, Obama doesn’t say he won’t ever use signing documents. He just says he’ll work with Congress about them. Which means he will, of course, sign some, but right now he wants today’s news coverage to be on more change to sort-of believe in.


[Clarification (4:26pm): While Clinton did use signing documents more than George W. Bush, the numbers could be considered misleading. Each bill contains numerous provisions, and that’s where the real numbers are; as today’s Times story noted, ‘According to one count, Bush issued 161 signing statements in which he cast doubt on more than 1,000 provisions in legislation and essentially stated his intention to ignore those parts of the law.’]

The full text of Obama’s signed signing letter memo is published below.

March 9, 2009MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIESSUBJECT: Presidential Signing Statements For nearly two centuries, Presidents have issued statements addressing constitutional or other legal questions upon signing bills into law (signing statements). Particularly since omnibus bills have become prevalent, signing statements have often been used to ensure that concerns about the constitutionality of discrete statutory provisions do not require a veto of the entire bill. In recent years, there has been considerable public discussion and criticism of the use of signing statements to raise constitutional objections to statutory provisions. 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. At the same time, such signing statements serve a legitimate function in our system, at least when based on well-founded constitutional objections. In appropriately limited circumstances, they represent an exercise of the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and they promote a healthy dialogue between the executive branch and the Congress. With these considerations in mind and based upon advice of the Department of Justice, 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. In issuing signing statements, I shall adhere to the following principles: 1. The executive branch will take appropriate and timely steps, whenever practicable, to inform the Congress of its constitutional concerns about pending legislation. Such communication should facilitate the efforts of the executive branch and the Congress to work together to address these concerns during the legislative process, thus minimizing the number of occasions on which I am presented with an enrolled bill that may require a signing statement. 2. Because legislation enacted by the Congress comes with a presumption of constitutionality, I will strive to avoid the conclusion that any part of an enrolled bill is unconstitutional. In exercising my responsibility to determine whether a provision of an enrolled bill is unconstitutional, I will act with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded. 3. To promote transparency and accountability, I will ensure that signing statements identify my constitutional concerns about a statutory provision with sufficient specificity to make clear the nature and basis of the constitutional objection. 4. I will announce in signing statements that I will construe a statutory provision in a manner that avoids a constitutional problem only if that construction is a legitimate one. To ensure that all signing statements previously issued are followed only when consistent with these principles, executive branch departments and agencies are directed to seek the advice of the Attorney General before relying on signing statements issued prior to the date of this memorandum as the basis for disregarding, or otherwise refusing to comply with, any provision of a statute. This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person. This memorandum shall be published in the Federal Register./signed/ BARACK OBAMA

-- Andrew Malcolm

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