President Obama tried to overturn his predecessor again on Monday, saying he will not use bill signing statements to tell his aides to ignore provisions of laws passed by Congress that he doesn't like.
President Bush objected to more than 1,000 provisions in various congressional bills — more than all previous presidents combined, according to the Congressional Research Service. When Bush signed bills, he would include a written statement explaining how provisions infringed on his rights as president and sometimes would instruct officials how to implement the law.
Obama sent a two-page memo to department heads saying he would only raise constitutional issues in his signing statements and do so in "limited circumstances." These statements "should not be used to suggest that the president will disregard statutory requirements on the basis of policy disagreements," the memo said.
Bush's tactics were not cited specifically. Obama also instructed agencies to consult Attorney General Eric Holder before relying on any previous signing statement as a basis for "disregarding, or otherwise refusing to comply with any provision of a statute."
Obama's memo came hours after he issued an executive order loosening the Bush administration's rules on federal support for embryonic stem cell research. Obama also has reversed Bush by ordering the closure of the military prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bill signing statements date back to at least 1822, when President James Monroe signed legislation reducing the size of theArmy but informed Congress that only he had the constitutional power to appoint military officers. These statements have many purposes, from praising the legislation to listing the reasons why it is necessary.
Bush, for example, signed a law 2005 that banned the torture of terrorism suspects but said in his signing statement that he had the authority as commander in chief to waive some provisions to prevent a terrorist attack.
Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe said the Bush administration used signing statements to advance a theory of "imperial executive power" in wartime. "An unlimited, unilateral executive, with no checks and balances," said Tribe, who teaches at Harvard Law School.
In his memo, Obama asked aides to work out constitutional problems before Congress acts.
Michelle Boardman, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, said the Bush White House tried to do just that. She said it is the executive branch's responsibility to point out conflicts between newly passed laws and the Constitution.
Obama "will discover for himself just how infrequently Congress shows any interest in removing unconstitutional provisions," she said.