President Obama on Friday signed a law allowing him to deny entry to the U.S. for Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations — but even as he did so, Mr. Obama said he considers it “advisory” and not binding.
The president, who took office saying he would curtail use of signing statements to reinterpret laws, issued just such a statement on this latest law, which Congress hastily passed to target Hamid Aboutalebi, who the U.S. says was involved in the 1979 hostage crisis.
“Acts of espionage and terrorism against the United States and our allies are unquestionably problems of the utmost gravity, and I share the Congress’s concern that individuals who have engaged in such activity may use the cover of diplomacy to gain access to our nation,” Mr. Obama said.
But he said presidents also have a duty to defend their constitutional turf — in this case, the right to decide who is accepted as an ambassador.
Mr. Obama said President George H.W. Bush issued similar objections in 1990 when a similar law was first passed, and “I shall therefore continue to treat section 407, as originally enacted and as amended by S. 2195, as advisory in circumstances in which it would interfere with the exercise of this discretion.”
Signing statements have a long history dating back to the founders, but they were generally the subject of study for academics and lawyers until President George W. Bush made frequent use of them during his two terms, delivering his opinion of how he construed his duty to enforce the laws he was signing.
Mr. Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign, seemed to say he was going to discontinue the practice.
“We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress,” he said at one event.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Obama issued his own rules governing when he would issue a signing statement. According to those rules, he pledged to work with lawmakers ahead of time to try to solve his objections, said he would be specific in listing his concerns, and would “act with caution and restraint.”
The bill denying Iran’s ambassador admission to the U.S. was sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and was approved by Congress last week. A day later, the Obama administration announced it was denying a visa for Mr. Aboutalebi.
Mr. Obama then waited a week before signing the Cruz bill — and issuing the statement that he would treat it as “advisory.”
The American Bar Association has taken a position opposing signing statements, saying that a president has two options when presented with a bill: Sign it or veto it.
In his 1990 signing statement, Mr. Bush objected to a number of provisions in an extensive bill authorizing foreign relations activities government-wide.
In Mr. Obama’s case, he objected to the single operative part of Mr. Cruz’s bill — yet signed it anyway.
Mr. Cruz’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening.