Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For Obama, it’s more about showmanship than sunlight

After rushing Congress to act, why did he wait for days to sign the "emergency" stimulus bill?

Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised something he called “Sunlight Before Signing.” Obama complained that “too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them.” So he pledged that, as president, he would “not sign any nonemergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House Web site for five days.”

“Sunlight Before Signing” faded into darkness with the first bill that came across Obama’s desk. The new president signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act two days after it was passed by Congress — and without posting it on the White House Web site.

Then he signed the second bill of his administration, an update of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, within hours after Congress passed it.

Both signatures clearly violated Obama’s campaign promise. Questioned by reporters, White House officials said they were “working out a series of procedures” to handle newly passed legislation. “We’re working through the technicalities of how that happens, and we’ll get a process together,” spokesman Robert Gibbs told the press last week.

As Gibbs spoke, the massive economic stimulus bill was racing through Congress, and the spokesman stressed that Obama’s campaign pledge specifically exempted “emergency” legislation. “If we get this [stimulus] bill, this would certainly meet the president’s test of emergency legislation,” Gibbs explained. “And if we’re lucky enough to have it pass, we’ll sign it rather quickly.”

Then, late Friday, after House and Senate Democratic leaders moved heaven and earth to pass it, the bill was ready for the president’s signature. And did President Obama sign it rather quickly? Not at all.

He also chose not to sign it on Saturday. And not to sign it on Sunday. And he chose not to sign it on Monday. Only on Tuesday, with a big campaign-style event in Denver, would the president finally be ready to put his signature on the bill.

He signs nonemergency legislation in the blink of an eye. And he lets emergency legislation sit for days before lifting his pen.

Obama’s delay in signing the stimulus is particularly ironic in light of the fact that Republicans had begged that the public be given more time to learn what was in the $787 billion bill — before it was passed.

No, no, the White House and Democrats said. This is emergency legislation, and it must be passed as soon as humanly possible. Democratic lawmakers worked round the clock to produce a bill — the final copy had handwritten revisions on it — that could be voted on Friday evening.

And then, when Senate Democrats knew they didn’t have the 60 votes necessary to move the legislation forward — the ailing Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy had gone to Florida, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown was at home attending a wake for his mother, who had died a few days earlier — Majority Leader Harry Reid took the extraordinary step of extending the vote for hours. The voting period, which normally lasts about 15 minutes, began at 5:30 p.m. Friday and ended only when Brown, his mother’s wake over, flew to Washington to cast his vote at almost 11. Then Brown immediately flew back to Ohio for his mother’s Saturday funeral.

It was a nearly unprecedented stretch of the rules. Republicans, knowing they didn’t have the votes to stop the bill and planning to spend the Presidents Day weekend in their home states, had agreed to Reid’s plan ahead of time. But why was there such a rush, if Obama had no plans to sign it for days?

Go back to “Sunlight Before Signing.” In the case of the stimulus, there was never any doubt Obama would sign the legislation. The period in which the public needed sunlight was before the bill was passed, not before it was signed. And that was precisely the kind of sunlight the White House and Democrats wanted to stop. Once they accomplished that with Friday’s voting gambit, Obama could take a few days off in Chicago while the “emergency” legislation sat on his desk. Then, it was on to Denver for the photo-op.

This delay had nothing to do with sunlight — and everything to do with showmanship.

By Byron York - The Examiner