Every once in a while, Congress remembers things it can do when an administration tries to ignore laws Congress has written. But it must be weird for President Obama, the former constitutional law professor, to see it happening on his watch.
Yesterday, the House voted almost unanimously — 429-2 — to negate a signing statement Obama issued that rejected restrictions Congress had placed on funding for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Obama had claimed the restrictions in the June supplemental spending bill “would interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations” and declared that “I will not treat these provisions as limiting my ability to engage in foreign diplomacy or negotiations.”
That an amendment by a Republican — Kay Granger of Texas — would pass a Democratic House with only two dissenting votes was striking in itself. But the Obama administration also got a broader warning during the floor debate, as House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey of Wisconsin and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts said Congress might simply refuse to fund the administration’s requests in the future if it wants to make a fuss about the strings that are attached.
Cut off the money? Congress can do that? Well, yes, that’s one of the most basic oversight tools Congress has. It’s just odd that no one remembered that during the years when President George W. Bush was burying the Hill in signing statements, and making far more sweeping claims of executive power than Obama has.
Of course, Obama did promise to rein in the use of signing statements, and it’s clear by now that he hasn’t reined them in that much. Besides, picking a fight over the IMF funding probably wasn’t the smartest way for the administration to make a stand on executive power, since the administration had asked for the money, it was highly unpopular with conservative Republicans, and top Democrats had to move mountains to find the votes to pass it.
“I was asked by the administration and worked hard to get that money for the IMF with some reasonable conditions,” Frank said during yesterday’s debate. “The notion that the administration can take the money and pick and choose what it wants to do with the conditions is unacceptable.”
“So let me say, as chairman of the committee that authorizes these and as someone who works closely with the appropriators in doing it, if the administration does not withdraw this claim that they can ignore conditions we put on it, then they will have nothing to ignore because there won’t be any conditions and there won’t be any money,” Frank said. “And that’s right there in the Constitution.”
In case the administration still didn’t get the message, Obey, the top House appropriator, hammered away at it some more. “The way the system works is that the administration asks the Congress for money. Many times that is not a popular request. Sometimes the only way that the votes can be found to provide the money the administration wants is to provide certain limitations on the use of that money,” Obey said. “For any administration to say, ‘Well, we will accept the money, but ignore the limitations’ is to greatly increase the likelihood that they will not get the money.”
There was a time, long before the Bush years, when Congress used to threaten to cut off money to win wars with the executive branch. Political scientist Christopher S. Kelley of Miami University in Ohio notes that when the Reagan administration said it would ignore a provision of a 1984 deficit reduction law that it felt gave too much power to the Comptroller General — the head of what is now the Government Accountability Office — Congress responded by threatening to cut off appropriations to the Department of Justice. The Reagan administration quickly changed its mind.
Maybe the Obama administration will change course too, or at least think a little more carefully before issuing its next signing statements. Then again, when Congress forgets its powers for eight years, perhaps the administration can hope the amnesia will kick in again.
Yay, bipartisanship? At Rachel Maddow's suggestion, I have a Google News alert set for "signing statements". She wanted to show her viewers how many Bush made, but Obama thus far has also made enough SS (seven in less than six months) to make Candidate Obama wince on that front.
BTW, the two "No" votes were both Dems. Kucinich (lolol) and