Obama Emulates Bush on Signing Statements

At a campaign stop in Grand Junction, Colorado in May 2008, Barack Obama said that the Bush administration changed “what Congress passed by attaching a letter saying “I don’t agree with this part” or “I don’t agree with that part.” Obama added, “Congress’s job is to pass legislation. The president can veto it or sign it.” Since taking office, however, President Obama has issued 20 signing statements, saying, in effect, “I don’t agree with this part or I don’t agree with that part.”

His latest signing statement is 13 paragraphs long and states why he will not follow several sections of the National Defense Authorization Act. The offending sections are on date exchange with Russia, new authorities to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda and sanctions against the central bank of Iran. Obama argues that the three sections interfere with his power to conduct foreign policy.

Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) contends that he had been assured by top national security advisers that some data, such as telemetry or hit-to-kill technology, would not go to Russia. He accused any White House lawyer writing the signing statement language of speaking with a “forked tongue.” Kirk fears that any technology shared with Russia will go to Iran.

The American Bar Association has said that if a president is not going to abide by a part of any given legislation, he must veto it. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, says that Obama will “forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law.”

Referring to the indefinite detention section that Obama objected to in his signing statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it is unconstitutional for the military “to become a police force… .”

There is a perverse nature to President Obama’s handling of the indefinite detention section of the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate Armed Services Committee reported out the NDAA with language in it authorizing the military to indefinitely detain certain persons. Obama said he would veto the bill unless the section was removed; however, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) argued on the Senate floor that Obama had insisted on the language being included. Then, when the bill came to him, Obama said the indefinite detention section, which Senator Levin said President Obama had wanted included, would hinder his ability to conduct foreign policy.

There should have been no surprise that Obama was following President George W. Bush’s lead on signing statements. In June 2009, Obama irked four senior Democrats, David Obey, Barney Frank, Nita Lowey and Gregory Meeks, by declaring he has the right to ignore legislation on constitutional grounds. President Obama had attached signing statements to a $410 billion omnibus spending bill and a $106 billion bill putting conditions on aid to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The four Democrats signed a letter saying that Obama can’t “pick and choose” which aspects of congressional statutes he is “required to enforce.” They related his actions to those of Bush.

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