Last week, President Obama issued a signing statement indicating his unwillingness to comply with the GOP’s effort to use the budget to deny funds to pay for presidential advisers (colloquially known as czars). The “czars” have been something of an obsession for conservatives who have pointed to it as proof of Obama abusing his power.
Substantively, the GOP prohibition is ridiculous and probably unconstitutional. But the president’s signing statement still represents open defiance of legislation passed by Congress — something Obama said he wouldn’t do as a candidate.
Conservatives are charging that Obama’s signing statement stinks of hypocrisy. But that’s too convenient by half.
It’s true that as a candidate Obama promised that he would not abuse signing statements in this fashion, claiming he would not use them “to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.”
But in so doing, Obama also left himself plenty of wiggle room, stating that “it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president’s constitutional prerogatives.” It’s really hard to imagine that does not apply to the president being able to hire people to give him advice.
What’s more, while it’s easy to point out that the president is being inconsistent, the nature and frequency of Obama’s use of signing statements needs to be part of the discussion. Unlike Obama, Bush issued signing statements defying thousands of laws. And the laws he chose to defy were far more consequential than the GOP’s “czar” proposal, such as Congressional legislation prohibiting torture.
The larger context here is important. To the degree that the prevalance of so-called “czars” is a problem, it’s because of the Senate’s dysfunction, and the GOP’s exploitation of that dysfunction for political ends. The “czars” are a direct result of Republicans in the Senate abusing their advise and consent role, turning every presidential appointment into an exercise in indulging parochial concerns and in political score-settling.
The big problem here is an institutional one. As E.J. Dionne and William Galston have written, far too many positions — over a thousand — are contingent on Senate confirmation. There’s no denying that Obama has been inconsistent on signing statements. But conservatives who profess to want fewer Obama “czars” might start by calling on Republicans to stop exploiting that dysfunction to grind the nominating process to a halt.