I’d sure as hell be one pathetic Whig if I didn’t write about recess appointments today. But you already knew that.
Here’s the backfill: last month, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the nominations of Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. Court of Appeals and Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Protection Board. Subsequent to that, there was a lot of criticism about this use of the filibuster, as many observers pointed out that it was being used to deny confirmation to an agency head as a protest against the agency itself, which, while probably not unprecedented, seemed to be a clear strategic escalation of the use of the filibuster. Steven Benen called the tactic “extortion politics.” Jonathan Cohn likened it to antebellum nullification, echoing Tom Mann’s assessment from this past summer. That’s probably, as Seth Masket noted, a bit overheated, but there’s little doubt that it reflects a crumbling Senate norm and a shift toward what Jonathan Bernstein calls hardball (and which I wrote about here).
Numerous observers suggested and/or urged President Obama to respond by using a recess appointment to fill the vacant offices, which would circumvent the Senate entirely. The Constitution, in Article II, section 2, clause 3, says:
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
And today, the President announced that he will do exactly that, filling the vacancy in the Consumer Protection Board with Cordray, and using similar recess appointments to fill three slots on the NLRB.
The problem and controversy can be discovered from just a plain reading of the text, which raises two puzzling issues: first, do the “vacancies that may happen” have to occur during a recess, or can a vacancy that occurs during a session also be filled? Second, what constitutes a recess? As you might imagine, how these questions are answered has a big impact on both the balance of power between Congress and the Executive, as well as Congressional-Executive relations.
The first question was resolved in the 19th century after numerous court decisions: it does not matter when the vacancy itself was created. The latter question — what constitutes a recess?— is still of much dispute, and is one of the reasons that today’s action by the President is controversial. President Obama is making an appointment during a three-day intra-session recess of the Senate; if allowed to stand, such a precedent would go beyond even the most expansive current reading of the clause, one offered by the Justice Department on behalf of the executive in the past — that the Senate must be in recess for at least three days before a valid intra-session recess appointment can be made. (The President is also apparently arguing that the Senate is not even really in session — insert Whig head explosion here — but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Ok. There’s a lot of spurious partisan writing out there about this, so let’s talk turkey. Bear in mind I’m a whig with a general inclination toward Congress over the Executive, but I’m coming at this from a good-faith point of view.
1. There are two fundamental values in collision here. The first value is legislative control of the Executive Branch of the government. The Founders were quite clear that the Senate should play a role in the appointment and installation of Executive Branch officials. No one disputes this, nor does anyone really question the propriety of Senate confirmation in contemporary times. It’s an excellent check on the President, and a sensible way to share powers between the political branches.
The second value is smooth and continuous functioning of the government. While Congress may be out of session for long periods of time in any given year, the government of the United States operates continuously. If a vacancy exists in the Executive Branch, then there are certain functions under law which may not be able to be executed. Under the Constitution, only officers of the United States may take substantial executive action, and absent a sitting Senate, the only way to create certain officers of the United States is through a recess appointment. Again, the Founders recognized this and sensible allowed for it in the Constitution. However…
2. History and the Founders may no longer be a helpful guide. Every partisan and their radical brother spent today looking for juicy Founder quotes about recess appointments. But a lot of the Founding thought is no longer relevant, because the structure of the congressional calendar is starkly different than it was in the 19th century, in two ways. First, the recesses between sessions of Congress (inter-session recesses) have dramatically shortened. Whereas Congress would often not meet from March until December in odd-numbered years or from June to December in even-numbered years, contemporary Congresses often have inter-session adjournments of only weeks or even just days. So while the President was routinely presiding alone over the government for months on end in the 19th century, virtually necessitating recess appointments, that is very rarely the case now. In that sense, the most pressing reason to even have recess appointments at all — months on end with no Senate session — is gone.
Second, the number of intra-session recesses has grown significantly in the 20th century. During the 19th century, Congress would often sit in Washington for the duration of a session, with few or no recesses of a week or more. Due to advances in transportation technology and the almost year-round sessions, contemporary Congresses tend to include numerous recesses of substantial length, including an annual August recess that may last close to a month or longer.
This raises some interesting normative questions: does a two-week congressional recess really create a disruption in Senate availability such that the smooth and continuous functioning of the government might be in jeopardy if there is an Executive Branch or judicial vacancy? Maybe, but bear in mind that many appointments submitted to the Senate take longer than that to confirm. Even more to the point, if the recess appointment clause was intended to be used during intra-session recesses, why does it allow the appointments to stand until the end of the next session, effectively allowing a intra-session recess appointment to last up to two years? It seems almost certain that such wording was used with inter-session recess appointments in mind, such that they would last only for the duration of one (i.e. the next) session of Congress.
Now, court decisions have rendered most of the questions these facts raise legally moot. After a long list of 19th century court cases, both inter-session and intra-session recess appointment are perfectly constitutional, although they occupy very different footings. President Obama could have appointed Mr. Cordray yesterday at noon, in the brief interlude between the first and second session of the 112th Congress, and leaned on the precedent of Teddy Roosevelt’s 160 appointments on December 7, 1903 for inter-session appointments, which seemingly require no span of time to be constitutional. But instead he chose to appoint him today — most likely because this will now allow Mr. Cordray to serve for virtually two years (the next session of Congress not ending until noon on January 3rd, 2014) — raising the question of how short a time period constitutes an intra-session recess long enough to qualify for a recess appointment. That’s tricky because…
3. There’s no solid answer to the question of what constitutes an intra-session recess. The Constitution simply doesn’t tell us what counts as a recess and what doesn’t. No number at all. No guidance at all. So all we have is our normative intuition on the political side, and court decisions on the legal side. The problem is that the court precedents tend to defy most reasonable normative evaluation. I don’t think there’s any question that an appointment can wait two weeks; lots of stuff sits vacant for two weeks while the Senate is considering a nomination. But the courts have upheld an appointment made during a Senate recesses of 11 days, and in the 2004 case challenging President Bush’s appointment of William Pryor, the Eleventh Circuit more or less endorsed appointments during recesses of that length or even shorter (the Supreme Court did not hear the case).
One potential hard deck is the 3-day period contemplated in the Constitution for either chamber to adjourn without the other chamber’s consent. That might suggest that the Founders didn’t think recesses of one or two or three days were of serious length (this, of course, assumes that the Founders thought any intra-session recess was of appointment-worthy length, but as noted, that ship has sailed), and indeed the Justice Department itself presented this theory while defending a Clinton recess appointment (attached to a longer recess) in 1993. But without further court guidance, this is an imponderable; our normative intuition says things like “when the Senate recesses overnight, that’s not recess-appointment worthy,” but again, our normative intuition might say the same thing about a two-week recess.
4. On the other hand, President Obama doesn’t seem to making an argument for intra-session appointments during recesses less than 3 days. Based on what is emerging from the White House, it seems like the President’s argument here is not that an intra-session recess appointment is valid during any recess of any length. Instead, the President seems to be making a much more troubling argument: that a two-minute pro forma session of the Senate which includes a unanimous consent order to conduct no business is not really a session of the Senate, and therefore the Senate has currently been in recess for several weeks at this point, clearly within the safe-harbor of court rulings on intra-session recess appointments.
As Stephen Smith points out in a comment on an very good Sarah Binder piece on the topic, this is an argument that might very well be a loser in the federal courts. The Senate unambiguously has control over its own agenda (via the Constitution, Article I, section 5) and the courts would be virtually a lock to not “look behind” the Senate’s own assessment of whether or not it was in session, leaving it clear cut that the chamber has been in session every third day. But set that aside. Whatever the merits of Obama’s argument in the courts, it’s certainly an affront to congressional authority; the Senate can consider whatever it wants whenever it wants, and no Presidential decree about what the Senate is considering and not considering can alter the meaning of the Constitution. The President is certainly welcome to hold his own interpretation of the Constitution, but he is not welcome to interpret the Senate rules on behalf of the Senate.
In the bigger picture, however, this raises the political specter of the pro forma sessions. Such sessions have largely come into play only in the last few years, as first Senate Democrats used them to avoid an inter-session recess in which President Bush could make appointments, and then Republicans followed suit to prevent inter-session appointments by President Obama. Most recently, the House Republicans have been using the constitutional provision that prevents either chamber from recessing without the other’s consent to keep the Senate in session. Some have suggested that this is a bridge too far, that if the Senate wants to stay in session to prevent recess appointments, fine, but when the House is forcing them to, that’s over the line. I’m sympathetic to that argument, but I think it ultimately fails. The House need not justify its own proceedings, nor explain why it remains in session. Just as the Senate rules are the prerogative of the Senate, so the House rules are the exclusive province of the House.
In any case, given that the House can prevent Senate adjournment for more than three days simply by not agreeing to such a recess, then control of either chamber may give an opposition party the ability to block recess appointments, assuming no court is going to bless recess appointments made during recesses shorter than 3 days. This may be good or bad, but it certainly is consequential: the growing backlog of Executive Branch and Judicial vacancies can be partially mitigated with recess appointments; if that safety valve is shut off, the Senate might find itself under even more intense pressure to find political or institutional ways to increase the speed of confirmations, or to reduce the number of positions requiring confirmation altogether. In this way, the President’s actions today are potentially bringing on a crisis, or at least a dilemma of sorts: the Senate may be loathe to give the President expanded recess appointment power, but at the same time unable to move traditional confirmations with the necessary speed. That’s a recipe for institutional change; Obama’s actions may be the exogenous shock that jumps starts them.
5. As usual, the partisan divide is working to the advantage of the Presidency at the expense of Congress. If you glance around at the political press releases or the blogsphere, it’s quite obvious what the alignment is over this issue; Democrats and liberals are supporting the President’s actions, and conservatives and Republicans are opposing it. The normative arguments can be filled in quite easily; Democrats are defending the need to get the agency running and decrying the GOP strategy of filibustering the Cordray nomination, while Republicans are worried sick about Presidential power grabs and are trying to defend the prerogatives of the Senate. We can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that in the converse situation, the arguments would be perfectly reversed. I’ve looked in vain for a process hawk among the Democrats or a Republican argument for a smooth-functioning government, but I’ve yet to find one. So don’t delude yourself — this is almost certainly policy preferences disguised as a normative process debate. But as I wrote yesterday, that’s not surprising.
The problem, however, is that I’m not sure how many Senators would favor each position in a vacuum. That is, if everyone was blinded to the specifics of the situation and the party/ideology of the President was unknown as well as the nomination in question, how many Senators would choose the smooth operation of the government (as manifest by the President being able to fill appointments willy-nilly for vacancies upon which the Senate has yet to act) over Senate control of nominations (as manifest by significant delays in appointments but lack of presidential workarounds). My inclination is to think that most Senators would choose the latter. And that’s worrisome, because the likely outcome of the current situation (as was the outcome under Bush) is that the ability of the President to circumvent the Senate will be enhanced.
There’s no need to be a slippery-slope alarmist here, but the trend is nevertheless worrisome. What we don’t want to end up in is a situation in which it has become the norm for the President to use recess appointments as the primary mechanism of filling the judiciary or the Executive Branch with judges/officers. Obviously, we’re still a long, long way off from that. But we shouldn’t disregard the possibility. For one, as discussed above the conditions and context are ripe for Presidents to seek to expand this authority; Senate confirmations have slowed considerably, and the past 20 years have seen an increase in the use of the filibuster in the nominations process, as the norm against such a practice has dissolved. It wouldn’t be hard for President Obama or any future White House occupant to make the political argument that recess appointments are necessary; it’s not like the President was out there on the stump today giving nuanced constitutional arguments. Instead, he just made a political argument in plain English: there’s an agency here to help people, and it can’t start helping them until it has an agency head. Therefore, I’m appointing one under my constitutional authority. Period. That’s a powerful political argument, and one that should scare a Senate institutionalist.
6. Still, the Senate has weapons of its own. While recess appointments are unilateral actions, it’s not the case that the President is playing strictly unilateral hardball here. Even if the recess appointment power was construed to allow appointment during any recess of any length, the President would still be strongly constrained in his actions. This is, after all, a separated system of shared powers, and there are lots of overlaps. Given that the Senate has the power to disregard the President’s agenda, or cut funding to his priorities, or any other of the myriad powers that overlap between the branches, an equilibrium definitely exists that is different than “the President does whatever he wants.” One tactic Congress has used in the past, and which is currently federal law for certain situations, is to deny pay to recess-appointed officers. But any tactic could be used. Of course, the same partisan and ideology cross-winds mentioned above tend to mitigate these powers, so it’s unknown how far toward the Presidency such an equilibrium would land.
How about a lawsuit that stopped the appointment, would that be a good thing for the Senate? On balance, I think it would be. I don’t think the Senate can condone a Presidential maneuver that allows the Executive to make judgments about whether or not a plainly-happening Senate session is actually a session. Having the courts slap back the President on that one (or make him walk back the argument in briefs) might be worthwhile. And it seems like a winnable case, as the 3-day adjourn consent window might just prove to be the magic bullet the courts need to make a firm ruling. On the other hand, all that would do is institutionalize the strategic pro forma session game, and do little to defuse such hardball. Perhaps a better outcome would be…
7. One possibility is that today’s action could (eventually) trigger Senate confirmation reform. There are lots of ideas floating around for improving the confirmation process in the Senate, ranging from bills to reduce the number of Executive Branch positions requiring confirmation all the way up to altering the Senate rules regarding the filibustering of Presidential nomination. And while none come without side effects (and potential unintended consequences), pressure may be growing for such action. If the alternative is a world in which recess appointments become more common as an everyday substitute for routinely filibustered nominees, the Senate may decide that it prefers strong influence in nominations over minority rights in confirmations. Again, I’m not saying we’re there yet — today is just one nomination, and by next week you probably won’t remember it — but as with so many things in the Senate right now, it certainly feels like the cords of institutional stability are growing taut, with no indication of when (or even if) they may snap.
8. As a last thought, don’t let the partisans fool you. Recess appointments have been used strategically and regularly by Presidents since the 1790’s; this isn’t something that was invented by President Obama. Or President Bush. Virtually all Presidents have routinely made recess appointments. On the other hand, today’s action by President Obama is almost certainly an unprecedented extension of the recess appointment power, and it is, while perhaps constitutional, nothing to waive away like so much nonsense. It’s true that this is just one appointment on one day, but these sorts of presidential actions tend to become the precedential basis for future actions, especially when they go unchallenged.
Update (8:35pm): Somehow I failed in all of this writing to link to any of Jon Bernstein’s various posts on the matter over the last few months. That’s an obvious oversight, and I recommend starting with his excellent post from today, which has jumping off points for his older stuff. I disagree slightly with his take (he’s somewhat more receptive to the idea that Obama’s actions today are reasonable, constitutional, and good), but I agree with the thrust of his piece, especially as it regards the possibility of this propelling institutional reform in the confirmation process.