In a memo to the heads of all executive branch departments and agencies, President Obama says he will continue the use of presidential signing statements but will do so more sparingly than the Bush administration.
“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,” he wrote, without providing specific details on what would fall under that definition.
These signing statements are legal documents that presidents can release after signing legislation into law if they want to outline their own interpretation of how the law should be implemented.
The Bush administration came under fire for using hundreds of these statements to tell government officials to ignore parts of the law that it believed were unconstitutional restrictions on the president’s executive power, most notably on national security issues.
Today’s presidential memo also instructs all heads of executive departments and agencies to consult with Attorney General Eric Holder before relying on previously issued signing statements (meaning Bush administration signing statements).
Noting that the practice of these statements “can be abused,” Obama said in the memo that these statements should not be used to suggest the president will ignore statutory requirements because of policy disagreements.
“"[S]uch signing statements serve a legitimate function in our system, at least when based on well-founded constitutional objections. In appropriately limited circumstances, they represent an exercise of the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and they promote a healthy dialogue between the executive branch and the Congress,” Obama wrote.
In order to minimize the use of these statements, Obama said his administration will work with Congress on pending legislation in order to work out any constitutional concerns before it comes time for the bill signing and will approach legislation with the assumption that all parts of the bill are constitutional. Obama, a constitutional law professor, said if concerns remain, he will base them “only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded."
The president does not specify how that interpretation will be reached.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today in the on camera briefing that the president will use signing statements “in order to go back to what has previously been done.”
“And that is to enumerate constitutional problems that either the Justice Department or the legislative counsel here see as a potential problem, through their reading, but not ask that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat … back to the original intent of a signing — of signing statements, to simply enumerate for those — like I said, what problems might be inherent in a piece of legislation, without asking that the federal government disallow or ignore congressional intent.”
– Karen Travers and Sunlen Miller