As the New York Times revealed Monday, President Obama has instructed administration officials not to rely on the hundreds of signing statements issued by his predecessor. That move should please John McCain. After all, the Republican presidential candidate not only pledged "never to issue a signing statement." Back in 2005, McCain was doubled-crossed when President Bush issued a signing statement effectively negating the Detainee Treatment Act he authored.
In his Times piece, Charlie Savage (who earlier won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Boston Globe for breaking the signing statement story) reported that President Obama "ordered executive officials to consult with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. before relying on any of them to bypass a statute." Obama's worry is well-founded. After all, in number and nature, George W. Bush's use of signing statements to skirt laws passed by Congress is simply unprecedented:
Mr. Bush frequently used signing statements to declare that provisions in the bills he was signing were unconstitutional constraints on executive power, claiming that the laws did not need to be enforced or obeyed as written. The laws he challenged included a torture ban and requirements that Congress be given detailed reports about how the Justice Department was using the counter-terrorism powers in the USA Patriot Act.
Dating back to the 19th century, presidents have occasionally signed a bill while declaring that one or more provisions were unconstitutional. Presidents began doing so more frequently starting with the Reagan administration.
But Mr. Bush broke all records, using signing statements to challenge about 1,200 bill sections over his eight years in office -- about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined, according to data compiled by Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.
But while President Obama did not today or during the 2008 presidential campaign foreswear the use of signing statement, his opponent did. In November 2007, John McCain announced:
"I would never issue a signing statement. It is wrong, and it should not be done."
McCain's unequivocal stand isn't just a matter of principle; it's quite personal. After all, when it came to the torture of terror detainees, George W. Bush stabbed John McCain in the back using the stiletto of a signing statement.