Obama Orders Review of Bush's Signing Statements
March 9, 2009 - 5:38 PMPresident Barack Obama on Monday ordered a review of George W. Bush's guidelines for implementing legislation passed by Congress, at the same time saying that he would employ his own version of how he wants the government to follow the law.
In a memo to senior government officials, Obama said they must check with Attorney General Eric Holder before relying on any of Bush's signing statements for guidance. Bush often issued a statement when signing a bill into law, and critics said the statements at times showed government officials how to circumvent the law if Bush disagreed with it on constitutional grounds.
"There is no doubt that the practice of issuing such statements can be abused," Obama wrote. "Constitutional signing statements should not be used to suggest that the president will disregard statutory requirements on the basis of policy disagreements."
Obama ordered his administration to work with Congress to let lawmakers know about concerns over legality before legislation gets to the White House for the president's signature. He also pledged that he would use caution and restraint in writing his own signing statements.
"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," Obama pledged.
Bush attached the signing statements to legislation that his administration saw as unreasonable or unconstitutional limits on executive power. However, Obama's White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, likened the move to Bush asking "that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat."
Obama as a candidate criticized Bush's use of signing statements, but Obama as a candidate never said he would completely eschew the centuries' old tradition.
Bush used his statements to circumvent Congress' ban on torture and prohibitions against using federal tax dollars to build a permanent military base in Iraq.
"I think the previous administration issued hundreds and hundreds of signing statements that specifically entailed ... through those signing statements, that people disregard portions of legislation or the intent of Congress," Gibbs said.
The Justice Department said the memo would help officials make better decisions.
"Upon request, we will offer guidance to other agencies to ensure that any reliance on a signing statement to disregard or otherwise refuse to comply with any provision of a statute is based on well-founded constitutional objections and reflects a legitimate interpretation of the statute in question," said Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller.
Obama's directive, released by the White House on Monday afternoon, was the latest rebuke of his predecessor. Earlier in the day, Obama reversed Bush's ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, and during his first seven weeks in office he has overturned many of Bush's executive orders.
Obama's memo was first reported on the Web site of The New York Times.
Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.
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