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Can Obama summon Congress back to work on an FAA bill?

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP This week, members of Congress packed their bags and jetted off on recess without finishing up the FAA funding bill. As Dylan Matthews explained, that means 4,000 FAA workers and 70,000 airport construction workers have been furloughed. Disconcertingly, at least 40 safety inspectors are now working without pay. Some liberals are now suggesting that President Obama should order Congress back to work to finish this up. Can he actually do that?

Technically, yes—though there’s a limit to how much it would achieve. Under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, the president has the power to, “on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.” The parties would no doubt differ on whether the FAA’s cutbacks count as “extraordinary,” though, as Douglas Linder, a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City points out, it’s unlikely the courts would challenge Obama here. “It’s also hard to imagine Congress saying, no, we’re not going to bother showing up,” Linder says.

After that, though, there’s not much Obama can do. “He can call them to session but he can’t lock the House and Senate doors,” says Linder. If Congress chose to remain deadlocked over an FAA bill, that would be that. Obama might win the political battle, but he couldn’t force FAA funding.

Precedent for a move like this is hard to find. In the early days before the 20th amendment, when Congress didn’t convene until March, presidents would sometimes call the Senate in early to get nominees confirmed. William Taft ordered a special session shortly after his inauguration to discuss the hot topic of tariff reform.

In fact, the only remotely comparable situation involved Harry Truman in 1948. Four months before election day, while speaking after midnight at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Truman suddenly announced a special session (later dubbed the “Turnip Day Session”) and demanded that Republicans pass the very policies they’d pledged at their own recent convention, from establishing national health care to extending Social Security and civil rights law. Senate Republicans bristled and simply refused all legislation (“No!” shouted Senator Robert Taft, “We’re not going to give that fellow anything.”) The session was a substantive disaster, but Truman, who at that point had been glumly staring at a 36 percent approval rating, was able to run against the “Do-nothing Eightieth Congress” and win re-election in the fall.

Update:: This whole question might be moot now that, according to Harry Reid, Senate lawmakers have reached a tentative deal on FAA funding to end the impasse.

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