President Obama on Monday will sign the omnibus land conservation bill - yet again breaking his vow to allow five days for public comment before he affixes his signature to legislation.
The bill passed the House on Wednesday, but the White House didn’t post the measure for comments until Friday, leaving just two weekend days and parts of Friday and Monday for the public to register comments - short of the president’s five-day pledge. The bill was posted for only several hours before the White House announced that Mr. Obama would sign it, indicating the president had made up his mind well before many comments could have been submitted.
The White House said issues are still being worked out with the five-day policy and that the president’s scheduled departure Tuesday to London for a meeting with world leaders makes it necessary to short-circuit things this time.
“In most cases, we have posted legislation with five days’ notice. We are working to resolve a few issues with the congressional calendar, and in this instance, in light of the president’s international trip, the bill will be signed before departure,” said spokesman Ben LaBolt, who vowed that the administration intends to live up to the policy.
“We will continue to post legislation on our Web site for comment as it moves through Congress, and plan to have the full policy implemented in the coming weeks,” he said.
The land bill has taken a convoluted path to the president’s desk, and Republican critics said Mr. Obama’s failure to wait is simply the latest procedurally dubious step in a Democratic effort to jam through a controversial bill.
“If there was ever a bill in need of more input and comment, it’s this one - but it didn’t get that in Congress and it doesn’t appear the administration will allow time for that either. That’s too bad, because there is a better way,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.
“The history of this bill in the House has been one of strained procedure, stifled debate, constitutional flaws, inclusion of measures without merit, and amendments to apparently non-amendable bills,” he said. “The people and their representatives have been shut out, and we have a poor end product because of it - one that will trample rights, hurt the management of our lands and hinder the economy and energy independence.”
During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged that when there’s “a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it.”
On his campaign Web site, he vowed that would mean he “will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”
Of the nine bills Mr. Obama has signed so far in his term, he has signed six of them less than five days after Congress sent them to him. Of the other three, only on one did he wait more than five days from the time the bill was officially presented to him, according to Thomas, the Web site of the Library of Congress that tracks legislation.
Some of those bills were emergency legislation, such as the stimulus-spending bill and a continuing resolution to keep the government funded while Congress hashed out 2009 spending. The administration said that for other bills, it sometimes posts a link to the measure and allows comments even before it is officially presented to the White House, so the tally can be misleading.
The lands bill combines dozens of parks, wilderness and conservation projects, some of which had passed individually but others that hadn’t received scrutiny, into a single bill.
Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked the legislation for months as they tried to remove parts they said were wasteful or counterproductive, including items such as new national parks that the National Park Service says it doesn’t even want.
Democrats were afraid of facing an open debate in the House and used parliamentary tactics, including combining the bill with another measure, to deny Republicans the ability to offer amendments on the House floor.
The bill did pass overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support, by a 285-140 vote in the House and a 77-20 vote in the Senate.
Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats “jammed this $10 billion, 1,200-page bill” through Congress and that Mr. Obama is doing the same at the White House.
“It appears that the administration’s ‘sunset before signing’ pledge should be renamed ‘sign before sundown.’ This is another unfortunate example of Democrats’ inability to live up to their promises of a more open and transparent government,” she said.
Mr. Obama’s pledge to have bills available for comment does put him apart from other presidents, but voters appear ready to hold him to the higher standard he set. On Thursday, when Mr. Obama hosted a virtual town hall, one of the submitted questions that Mr. Obama didn’t get to answer was why he wasn’t following through on his five-day rule.
Asked at the daily White House briefing about the pledge later that day, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he thought that all except for the stimulus bill had met the five-day comment period.
“I think, in fact, on at least a couple of occasions we’ve not signed bills when we normally planned so that some of them could be reviewed,” he said.
Asked by ABC’s Jake Tapper whether the five-day rule was “a commitment the president intends to uphold from now on,” Mr. Gibbs was unequivocal: “Yes, sir.”