Obama breaks own sign­ing rules

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER AND STEPHEN DINAN

Pres­i­dent Obama failed to con­sult Congress, as promised, be­fore carv­ing out ex­cep­tions to the om­nibus spending bill he signed into law — break­ing his own sign­ing-state­ment rules two days af­ter is­su­ing them — and raised ques­tions among law­mak­ers and com­mit­tees who say the pres­i­dent’s ob­jec­tions are un­clear at best and a power grab at worst.

In at least one case, law­mak­ers charge, Mr. Obama used his first sign­ing state­ment, on the catch-all $410 bil­lion spending bill, to go be­yond the Bush and Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tions in swat­ting away Congress’ at­tempt to pro­tect whistle­blow­ers.

”Not only is your sign­ing state­ment con­trary to your cam­paign state­ments, it also goes be­yond the tra­di­tional broad sign­ing state­ments au­thored by pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents,” said Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley, Iowa Repub­li­can and a leader in push­ing for whistle­blower pro­tec­tions, who wrote a let­ter say­ing Mr. Obama goes af­ter those who di­vulge classified in­for­ma­tion to Congress.

White House spokesman Bill Bur­ton ac­knowl­edged the ad­min­is­tra­tion didn’t fol­low its rules this time on work­ing with Congress, but dis­puted Mr. Grass­ley’s stance, say­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to whistle­blower pro­tec­tions but the spending bill “goes too far.”

Mr. Bur­ton said un­der the spending bill’s lan­guage, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials who talk about classified or na­tional se­cu­rity ma­te­rial or is­sues cov­ered by ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege would be pro­tected. He said the White House’s more lim­ited in­ter­pre­ta­tion is con­sis­tent with how for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton con­strued whistle­blower pro­tec­tions, and pointed to a sign­ing state­ment Mr. Clin­ton is­sued Sept. 29, 1999, as ev­i­dence.

“The pres­i­dent’s sign­ing state­ment does not pur­port to con­trol or limit le­git­i­mate whistle­blow­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Nor is it in­tended to break new ground on this is­sue,” Mr. Bur­ton said.

Sign­ing state­ments date back to the 1800s, but be­came a heated is­sue when crit­ics ac­cused for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush of us­ing them to carve out parts of laws he would ig­nore on pol­icy grounds, rather than sim­ply lay out sep­a­ra­tion-of-pow­ers con­flicts be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­is­la­ture.

On March 9, Mr. Obama is­sued new rules de­signed to cut down on state­ments. He promised to work with Congress in ad­vance to work out ob­jec­tions and de­crease the need for a sign­ing state­ment, said he would be spe­cific in his ob­jec­tions when he does is­sue a state­ment, and would “act with cau­tion and re­straint.”

Two days later, on March 11, Mr. Obama is­sued his first state­ment, list­ing ob­jec­tions to at least 10 pro­vi­sions and cit­ing five con­sti­tu­tional grounds.

The ob­jec­tions ranged from very spe­cific to fairly broad, in­clud­ing in­ter­fer­ing with the chief ex­ec­u­tive’s right to ne­go­ti­ate on for­eign af­fairs; mis­con­stru­ing the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand by forc­ing him to get sign-off from mil­i­tary com­man­ders for cer­tain U.N. peace­keep­ing mis­sions; and mak­ing some ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sions sub­ject to pre-ap­proval by con­gres­sional com­mit­tees or ad­vi­sory boards with con­gres­sional mem­bers. Mr. Obama said that vi­o­lated sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers.

Tim Rieser, ma­jor­ity clerk for the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee’s state and for­eign op­er­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, said the vague lan­guage of Mr. Obama’s sign­ing state­ment left sub­com- mit­tee mem­bers with ques­tions about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ten­tions.

“We will be ask­ing them for clar­i­fi­ca­tion,” he said. “They ap­pear to be­lieve that cer­tain pro­vi­sions ex­ceeded Congress’ con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity. Congress did not see it that way, so we need to dis­cuss it.”

Sev­eral mem­bers of Congress and their staffers also said they re­ceived no warn­ing about the ob­jec­tions.

The White House de­fended the state­ments, say­ing the om­nibus spending bill was “an un­usual case in many re­spects.”

“The tim­ing and process on the om­nibus bill (which re­ally deals with last year’s busi­ness), in­clud­ing the fact that there was no con­fer­ence re­port, made it not prac­ti­ca­ble for the Ad­min­is­tra­tion to ar­tic­u­late its con­sti­tu­tional con­cerns un­til the sign­ing state­ment,” Mr. Bur­ton said in an e-mail.

Some sub­com­mit­tees took a wait-and-see ap­proach to Mr. Obama’s sign­ing state­ment, ar­gu­ing it’s more im­por­tant to see how the pres­i­dent fol­lows through. And some law­mak­ers didn’t see the state­ment need­ing any fol­low-up.

Rep. Alan B. Mol­lo­han, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat and chair- man of the com­merce, jus­tice and sci­ence and re­lated agen­cies sub­com­mit­tee, de­clined to re­spond to sev­eral in­quiries about the sign­ing state­ment.

And House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions state and for­eign op­er­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee mem­ber Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, said he was too busy to re­view the sign­ing state­ment.

“Un­for­tu­nately, he does not have the time that would be nec­es­sary to go through the bill and the sign­ing state­ment in or­der to com­ment,” said Schiff spokesman Sean O’Black.

Still other sub­com­mit­tees said they ac­cept the pres­i­dent’s ob­jec­tions. For ex­am­ple, Mr. Obama said the In­te­rior Depart­ment sec­tion of the bill in­ter­fered with the pres­i­dent’s right to con­duct for­eign pol­icy be­cause it di­rected rather than en­cour­aged the U.S. gov­ern­ment to work with for­eign gov­ern­ments on fire­fight­ing as­sis­tance.

“We hadn’t heard of any ob­jec­tion pre­vi­ously, but it’s not a ma­jor prob­lem. His sign­ing state­ment merely says he will not be con­strained by virtue of our lan­guage, which isn’t a prob­lem,” said Ge­orge Be­han, chief of staff for House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions in­te­rior, en­vi­ron­ment and re­lated agen­cies sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Norm Dicks, Wash­ing­ton Demo­crat.

The pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to is­sue any sign­ing state­ments at all has come un­der fire.

H. Thomas Wells Jr., pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion, said the Con­sti­tu­tion gives Mr. Obama two op­tions: to sign or veto a bill.

“The ABA rec­om­mended that all pres­i­dents re­frain from us­ing sign­ing state­ments to chal­lenge the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of leg­is­la­tion, and Pres­i­dent Obama has kept the door open to do so,” Mr. Wells said the day af­ter Mr. Obama is­sued his new rules.

Pres­i­dent Obama

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