Editorial | Boehner v. Obama – a real courtroom drama or political stunt?

The following editorial appeared in The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday:

House Republican Speaker John Boehner says he’s so upset about President Barack Obama’s use of signing statements to challenge laws he and his GOP majority pass that he’s planning to sue the president for overstepping his bounds.

His threat seems little more credible than that of the late Sen. Arlen Specter in 2006. A few years before he became a Democrat again, the then-Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee said he was fixing to sue President George W. Bush after revelations that the president was using signing statements rather liberally.

Tying up the courts and spending untold amounts of the public’s money on a case that wouldn’t likely see any results until the next presidency, which could go to a Republican, wouldn’t serve Boehner’s immediate purpose of keeping up the sustained pressure on Obama. More likely, it is a stunt developed for the July news doldrums to keep the base energized until the November election and maybe throw a bone to the pro-impeachment crowd.

Besides, Boehner didn’t seem to have much problem with signing statements by other presidents.

According to the Library of Congress, the use of signing statements began in earnest with President Ronald Reagan and has continued under every president since. George W. Bush issued the most – 172. President Barack Obama used them too, though only about 30 so far.

No party likes the other side’s use of signing statements, which are the notes that presidents attach to bills they sign indicating their displeasure with some or all parts of the law and suggesting that it will be a cold day in the underworld when he enforces those laws exactly the way Congress desires.

Democrats tried to stop the practice of undermining signing statements during the latter Bush presidency, though with legislation, not litigation. One such bill, House Resolution 264 by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, griped that signing statements “encroach upon the power to make laws that the Framers vested solely in the Congress.” Then-Sen. Obama criticized Bush’s “clear abuse” of executive power.

At the time, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, defended Bush, saying that signing statements are just the way of a president expressing himself.

One person’s self-expression is another’s abuse of constitutional powers – and vice versa.

In an opinion piece titled “Why we must now sue President Obama” posted on CNN.com over the weekend, Boehner wrote that Obama “has circumvented the American people and their elected representatives through executive action, changing and creating his own laws, and excusing himself from enforcing statutes he is sworn to uphold.”

Like filibusters and recess appointments, outrage over signing statements by politicians lasts only until it is their turn to use them.