Transparency in Presidential Signing Statements


Over the weekend, Charles Savage at The New York Times had an important article on how President Obama’s use of signing statements —  written pronouncements sometimes issued by presidents when they sign bills into law –has begun to mirror his predecessor’s, creating similar criticism and controversy. (The last president was prolific in the use of signing statements.)

Here’s a list along with links to of all of President Obama’s signing statements so far. But I didn’t find this list on where I thought it would be…And where it should be! If you go the White House you won’t find an explicit listing of the statements. They might be there…they could be in the  97-page list of “Statements and Releases.” And the site’s search function was of no help. Not good. Not good at all.

We found them however at a site maintained by Joyce Green, a private attorney, who maintains a Web site that lists all the presidential signing statements since 2001. Green built the website for two reasons: (1) to provide free, convenient public access to the signing statements; and (2) to provide an objective, nonpartisan, and reliable research tool for reporters, scholars, lawyers, and anyone who is interested in signing statements. Green’s site is mirrored by Pace University Law School, with her permission, and it will eventually take over the materials and Green’s Web site soon disappear.

The practice of signing statements has created lots of controversy, such as when a statement proclaims some part of the legislation is unconstitutional and the administration intends to ignore it. President George W. Bush created controversy by issuing numerous signing statements that declared sections of bills unconstitutional.  In July 2006, the American Bar Administration declared that using signing statements to modify the meaning of passed legislation undermined “the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers”.

While running for president, now President Obama was critical of Bush’s use of the statements and called them an “abuse,” promising to show greater restraint. As Savage wrote at The Times, the Obama administration says the signing statements the president has signed so far, challenging portions of five bills, have been based on mainstream interpretations of the Constitution and echo reservations routinely expressed by presidents of both parties.

That may be all well and good, but our concern is less about the constitutional law issues involved, but on the need for transparency in the process. If the president is refusing to enforce legislation passed by Congress then we have a right to know about it. And the administration should make it easy to find on its Web site. This is a problem easily solved.