Department of Justice Tells Obama to Disregard U.S. Foreign Relations Law

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Posted: Sep 16, 2009 2:50 PM
From the New York Times of all places:

The Justice Department has declared that President Obama can disregard a law forbidding State Department officials from attending United Nations meetings led by representatives of nations considered to be sponsors of terrorism.

[# More #]

Based on that decision, which echoes Bush administration policy, the Obama administration sent State Department officials to the board meetings of the United Nations’ Development Program and Population Fund in late spring and this month, a department spokesman said. The bodies are presided over by Iran, which is on the department’s terror list, along with Cuba, Sudan and Syria...

In the new opinion, David Barron, the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that the statute — a restriction Congress imposed in the State Department’s annual budget bill — “unconstitutionally infringes on the president’s authority to conduct the nation’s diplomacy, and the State Department may disregard it.”

So apparently Obama is not the only president whose DoJ has placed above the law.  But obviously this policy doesn't seem right.  Even Obama's Demorat allies are uneasy about the president dodging established foreign relations law:

The chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees financing for the State Department, Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York, strongly objected to the overriding of such statutes by the executive branch.

“This provision is law for a very good reason,” Ms. Lowey said. “There are consequences for being a state sponsor of terrorism. The decision of both the previous and current administrations to disregard this law is unacceptable.”

My question: If this or any other law is thought to be unconstitutional, wouldn't the courts determine that the president didn't have to abide by it?  How in the world is it possible a government bureaucrat can decide which laws the president will follow and those he will not?

Nothing in the Constitution explicitly says Congress cannot forbid using taxpayer money to send certain officials to diplomatic meetings that lawmakers find objectionable. The Supreme Court has never ruled on the question.

In addition to these legal questions, members of Congress are also upset the White House has decided to proceed in disregarding the law without notifying them in advance:

Ms. Lowey and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate subcommittee that handles State Department appropriations, criticized the administration for not telling Congress about its plans.

In a statement, Mr. Leahy said he recognized that “the current and former administrations may have legitimate constitutional concerns about this provision.” But he added: “There is no excuse for the administration’s failure to inform Congress that steps would be and in fact have been taken in violation of this provision. I cannot accept this.”

Justice Department officials pointed out that when Mr. Obama signed the legislation containing the provision in March, he issued a signing statement reserving a right to bypass any portions of the bill that restricted his power to conduct diplomacy.
In all my time studying politics and government, checks and balances and the constitutional separation of powers, I never thought it would be possible for a president to sign a law with provisions that specifically exempted him from the law if he deemed it necessary.  This entire practice boggles my mind.