President Obama has issued a signing statement, contradicting some things he said during the campaign. But signing statements are just a procedural shortcut past a very serious problem of legislative collusion. There is a better solution.
President Obama's signing statement...
[A]fter Democrats criticized former President George W. Bush's signing statements, Mr. Obama issued one of his own, declaring five provisions in the spending bill to be unconstitutional and nonbinding...
...would seem to contradict his previous arguments.
- In a 2007 letter to a constituent, Senator Obama said, "The President can veto a bill or sign it into law, but the Constitution does not grant him authority to determine when he can ignore those he signs."
- In a 2007 interview, Senator Obama said, "it is a clear abuse of power to use such statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like", and "I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.
- In a 2008 campaign event, when asked, "Do you promise not to use Presidential signage to get your way?", candidate Obama said "Yeah" and added that "We're not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress." That was captured on video...
The issue of signing statements is complicated, and I don't intend to make a blanket pronouncement on the matter here. It comes down to a tension between speed and quality of legislative action: "Congress sometimes includes minor constitutional flaws in important bills that are impractical to veto."
But signing statements do not resolve the important questions of Constitutionality; they simply kick the can down the road. Signing statements are a procedural shortcut that allow politicians to maintain the omnibus approach to legislation.
The legislative bundling process sacrifices quality, oversight and accountability in exchange for speed. This is a very bad collective decision making process. It is unaccountable and collusive.
The solution would be an unbundling of legislation. That is, the legislature should consider and vote on each legislative item separately - each earmark, each rule, each amendment. While this might seem prohibitively complicated for a massive bill, it need not be. Line item voting could be accomplished with a simple box-check form submitted at the time of the formal vote, with the final bill composed of the individual items that recieved a majority vote. This could also simplify the legislative reconciliation process. (NOTE: We should also ask ourselves why we would tolerate a legislative process so complicated that legislators cannot consider each element of a bill)
President Obama has pledged to change the Bush administration's approach to signing statements, but only in degree, not in principle. That will not improve the government's perverse collective decision making process. Legislative unbundling could resolve that problem, but that would require accountability and responsibility. Neither Republicans nor Democrats appear interested in that.