The lengths Politifact will go to

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on July 29, 2009

I’ve noted before that, despite its Pulitzer Prize and its claims of nonpartisanship, nonetheless does what it can to shield President Obama as best it can from having to call one of his hundreds of campaign promises “broken.”

That trend has continued. As I noted last week, Democrats in Congress had assailed Obama for using a signing statement to ignore part of a bill – a practice candidate Obama vowed to put a halt to.

Four senior House Democrats on Tuesday said they were "surprised" and "chagrined" by Obama’s declaration in June that he doesn’t have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill that puts conditions on aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In a signing statement accompanying the $106 billion bill, Obama said he wouldn’t allow the legislation to interfere with his authority as president to conduct foreign policy and negotiate with other governments.

This prompted to revisit an earlier ruling of “stalled” for Obama’s promise.

So for now, we find evidence on both sides. There have been the instances where Obama does seem to be exercising more presidential power than Congress would like and, in at least a couple of cases, crossing the line from his promise. But these are issues of power, over which the legislative and executive branch have long tussled. So for now, we're going to rate this one Compromise. But we'll be watching future signing statements to see if we should move the Obameter one way or the other.

But this was the very thing in dispute that the legislator Obama had decried during the campaign when done by the executive Bush. Now that Obama is the executive, he sees things much the same way. In fact, there’s really no difference between Obama and Bush now on the rationales behind signing statements.

In fact, let’s look at Politifact’s own analysis:

In rating this promise, we have to judge whether Obama has been consistent with his vow to use the statements "to clarify his understanding of ambiguous provisions of statutes and to explain his view of how he intends to faithfully execute the law" and to avoid using them "to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law."

The least contentious example is the one on the Reagan centennial, since there is no indication of any disagreement between his administration and Congress. The other ones are more challenging for us to rate.

In the case of the the Erie Canal commission, the president said that when choosing its members, he disagreed that they need to be approved by lawmakers. That sounds like a reasonable constitutional interpretation, but some in Congress could see it as "undermin(ing) congressional instructions as enacted into law," and maybe even nullifying them.

In case of the financial commission, the president sought to prevent administration officials from having to provide "any information related to any Commission inquiry," as Congress had written into the law. Here, too, it seems like the president is balking at Congress and seeking to undermine, if not nullify, the instructions that Congress wrote into the law.

Finally, in the IMF case that drew the House Democratic ire, the president refused to be bound by language that mandated his administration to take certain positions as dictated by Congress, or requiring advance consultation with Congress. That also sounds like a bid to undermine or nullify congressional instructions. But as the experts say below, he's also raising reasonable constitutional questions.

But that’s exactly what Bush did and got the ire of Democrats and Obama. Congress puts limitations on who can serve on an executive branch commission and the president says he will ignore it because it infringes on the powers of the executive. In each of these he is choosing to “nullify or undermine” congressional instructions. An honest reading can leave no doubt.

But Politifact doesn’t do honest.

It's worth noting that Obama has not used signing statements in the bold and sweeping way that President Bush did. Bush, for instance, said that his role as commander in chief meant that he could ignore the wishes of Congress — expressed in several bills that passed both chambers and were signed by the president — that U.S. troops be kept out of combat against Marxist rebels in Colombia funded by the drug trade.

Is this not a reasonable constitutional question too? Is it congress or is it the president who has the final say in determining the rules of engagement for U.S. troops? And it’s not like the aforementioned Obama signing statements weren’t “expressed in several bills that passed both chambers and were signed by the president.”

I think that’s really the issue here: Lingering BDS. If it has to do with national security, war, surveillance, then the use of a signing statement is out of bounds. If it’s Obama and the issue is more mundane, then it’s OK.

So, how does Politifact get to its “compromise” label? It asks three political scientists that unconvincingly argue that Bush’s signing statements were guided by “policy” and Obama’s are guided by defending the executive’s “constitutional perogatives.”

I don’t buy it. You shouldn’t either. Politifact and its professors don’t make the case.

Finally, I would once again note that when it went looking for sources, they didn’t manage to find anyone who held an opposing view. It’s not like they would have a tough time finding one.


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July 2009



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