By signing statement, President Obama mooted two of the effects of the compromise budget legislation: the withdrawal of funds for stateside trials of war on terror detainees, and for special presidential advisors (“czars”).
Before calling this latest signing statement the breach of a campaign promise, let’s remember the scope of the promise. Obama never promised to not issue signing statements, but to minimize their impact and frequency by consulting with Congress. Here, because the budget compromise followed extensive negotiation, we can imagine that consult probably happened, that the threat was tendered, and that it was ignored. More, the GOP must have known such limitations on the president’s budget wouldn’t stand under this (or any) White House. Congressional Republicans just wanted the vote, and the signing statement, on record, which is what they got. The tea party is an ideology of symbols, not of action; and they certainly got the latter.
Nor are we confronted here with an abuse mirroring the worst — which is to say, the regular course of conduct — of the Bush years. Bush regularly killed not just funding limitations, but substantive law imposed on the executive branch pursuant to the Congress’ constitutional authority to regulate the conduct of war. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 was the result of two Supreme Court decisions, and extensive debate, all of which crystallized into a stinging, two-branch rebuke of the President’s ability to jail and abuse suspected terrorists without due process. By signing statement, Bush summarily ignored the Act.
Symbolically and legally, that’s not what’s happened here. The executive’s power to ignore substantive limitations is subject to serious debate; the executive’s powers to safeguard its officers, run the executive branch as it sees fit, and make prosecution decisions through the Department of Justice, on the other hand, are all well-settled. Congressional Republicans saw a chance to extract unlikely substantive concessions using the power of the purse, and made the power grab. They lost, pursuant to a power that they themselves acknowledge as legitimate. That’s all that’s happened here.