Obama breaks own signing rules

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President Obama failed to consult Congress, as promised, before carving out exceptions to the omnibus spending bill he signed into law — breaking his own signing-statement rules two days after issuing them — and raised questions among lawmakers and committees who say the president’s objections are unclear at best and a power grab at worst.

In at least one case, lawmakers charge, Mr. Obama used his first signing statement, on the catch-all $410 billion spending bill, to go beyond the Bush and Clinton administrations in swatting away Congress’ attempt to protect whistleblowers.

“Not only is your signing statement contrary to your campaign statements, it also goes beyond the traditional broad signing statements authored by previous presidents,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a leader in pushing for whistleblower protections, who wrote a letter saying Mr. Obama goes after those who divulge classified information to Congress.

White House spokesman Bill Burton acknowledged the administration didn’t follow its rules this time on working with Congress, but disputed Mr. Grassley’s stance, saying the administration is committed to whistleblower protections but the spending bill “goes too far.”

Mr. Burton said under the spending bill’s language, administration officials who talk about classified or national security material or issues covered by executive privilege would be protected. He said the White House’s more limited interpretation is consistent with how former President Bill Clinton construed whistleblower protections, and pointed to a signing statement Mr. Clinton issued Sept. 29, 1999, as evidence.

“The president’s signing statement does not purport to control or limit legitimate whistleblowing activities. Nor is it intended to break new ground on this issue,” Mr. Burton said.

Signing statements date back to the 1800s, but became a heated issue when critics accused former President George W. Bush of using them to carve out parts of laws he would ignore on policy grounds, rather than simply lay out separation-of-powers conflicts between the executive and legislature.

On March 9, Mr. Obama issued new rules designed to cut down on statements. He promised to work with Congress in advance to work out objections and decrease the need for a signing statement, said he would be specific in his objections when he does issue a statement, and would “act with caution and restraint.”

Two days later, on March 11, Mr. Obama issued his first statement, listing objections to at least 10 provisions and citing five constitutional grounds.

The objections ranged from very specific to fairly broad, including interfering with the chief executive’s right to negotiate on foreign affairs; misconstruing the military chain of command by forcing him to get sign-off from military commanders for certain U.N. peacekeeping missions; and making some executive decisions subject to pre-approval by congressional committees or advisory boards with congressional members. Mr. Obama said that violated separation of powers.

Tim Rieser, majority clerk for the Senate Appropriations Committee’s state and foreign operations subcommittee, said the vague language of Mr. Obama’s signing statement left subcommittee members with questions about the administration’s intentions.

“We will be asking them for clarification,” he said. “They appear to believe that certain provisions exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority. Congress did not see it that way, so we need to discuss it.”

Several members of Congress and their staffers also said they received no warning about the objections.

The White House defended the statements, saying the omnibus spending bill was “an unusual case in many respects.”

“The timing and process on the omnibus bill (which really deals with last year’s business), including the fact that there was no conference report, made it not practicable for the Administration to articulate its constitutional concerns until the signing statement,” Mr. Burton said in an e-mail.

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