"We're not going to use signing statements in a way of doing an end run around Congress."
- Sen. Barack Obama, when running for president in 2008.
Two weeks ago, Congress passed a bill barring anyone, including diplomats, from entering the United States who had participated in espionage or terrorist activity against this country. In a rare burst of bipartisanship, the bill was passed unanimously by both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate.
Initially proposed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the bill took aim at the Islamic Republic of Iran's nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi to as ambassador to the United Nations. Aboutalebi was one of the "student activists" who, in 1979, seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two Americans serving there were held hostage for 444 days. They were released the day President Ronald Reagan took office, succeeding Jimmy Carter. The Aboutalebi nomination is widely viewed as yet another middle-finger salute to the Obama administration.
Though President Obama signed the bill in question here, he did so while declaring it unconstitutional, in that it impinged on his authority to approve or disapprove applications for visas to enter the United States. He said he accepted the bill as "advisory" only, and not as law he felt obliged to enforce. The Constitution, which is silent on the question of "signing statements," gives the president three options when presented with legislation passed by Congress. He may 1) do nothing, permitting the bill to become law without his approval; 2) sign the bill, making it law; 3) veto the bill, sending it back to the House in which it originated, along with his written objections. A two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives is required to override his veto.
Those who defend the president's action, with some justification, point to the paucity of Obama's signing statements compared to George W. Bush's. (One reason for which is the relatively few number of bills, particularly since 2010 when Republicans took control of the House, actually presented for Obama's signature.)
The president, however, by executive order has stretched his authority to amend or even ignore laws passed by Congress. Prime example: the Affordable Health Care Act. Its clearly written timetable for implementation has been twisted like a pretzel, and for patently political purposes.
Times change, and politicians change with them - if they wish to continue playing the game. It used to be much easier to paper over past mistakes and petty crimes, before newsrooms had access to extensive video and print files documenting virtually everything said and done by those holding or running for high political office.
Few possess President Obama's extraordinary talent for distancing himself from his own words and actions in the public arena. It's not, I think, that hypocrisy no longer resonates the way it once did. It's more that a strong sector of the electorate no longer seems to care or is ignorant of what happened in even the most recent past. In some instances, I suspect that many now secretly admire the way scoundrel politicians manage to pull it off.
Think of former President Bill Clinton, soon to be a grandfather, and now respected elder statesman. How many who now cheer and cherish him really care (or remember) his impeachment? His lying under oath? How many believe that character matters anymore in those elected to become "leader of the free world"?
"I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinski."
"It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."
"If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. Period."
"If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. Period."
Lies, lies and politicians.
Not all politicians, of course. But far too many who have placed our system of government and our country at great risk. Look at the polls. There is nothing in them in which either major political party today can take heart.
One can only hope that in America we will see a much needed rediscovered trust in Washington, a rededication to the principles that made our country what it so recently was - "the last, best hope for mankind" - in a world increasingly turned upside down.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.