Court decision on recess appointments could make America harder to govern

January 25, 2013

This has been a terrible week for anyone who wants to see a crisp, well-run U.S. government. First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opted to make only minimal changes to the filibuster, which will allow a minority of senators to continue to block any legislation they may wish to. And a court ruling on Friday threw into doubt the ability of the president to get around bottlenecks in the Senate to get his nominees into office.

It's right there in the constitution! (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS )
It's right there in the constitution! (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS )

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that President Obama's "recess appointments" of members to the National Labor Relations Board last year exceeded his constitutional authority. The constitution allows the president to appoint senior officials without Senate confirmation when the Senate is in recess. ("The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate," says Article II, "by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session".)

Presidents use this power sparingly, as it tends to inflame tensions with the Senate. But it is a key way for presidents to get their nominees into position when faced with an obstructionist Senate. It is even more important for the implied threat to the lawmakers: Confirm my nominees, the president can say, or I'll appoint them during your recess and freeze the Senate out of the process entirely.

Senate Republicans were blocking consideration of Obama's nominees to agencies whose work they generally dislike, namely the NLRB and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the Dodd-Frank Act. Nothing personal about the individual nominees themselves; the lawmakers just didn't want to staff the NLRB and CFPB at all. Eventually fed up, Obama appointed new NLRB board members and Richard Cordray as director of the CFPB during the Senate's holiday recess last winter.

The Senate, though, was holding "pro forma" sessions every few days, gaveling in and then out so that it could claim to not be in recess at all. The appeals court ruled Friday that the gaveling counted as being in session, meaning the recess appointments weren't valid.

The decision will surely be appealed, but if it is upheld, it would essentially make the constitutional provision for "recess appointments" invalid -- the Senate could always use the pro forma sessions to prevent a president from making such appointments. If that happens, Obama and future presidents will have less leverage in trying to force the Senate to consider nominees.

The recess appointment may have only been used as a last resort, but it was part of the president's arsenal in getting the Senate to act. And it isn't a partisan issue. President George W. Bush used recess appointments a handful of times, including to install John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations over strenuous Democratic objections. Under the legal principle described in the court ruling, presidents of either party will not be able to use that method to push through their nominees.

If the court ruling stands, one of the key tools that presidents have long though sparingly used to run the country -- this one spelled out in the Constitution itself! -- could become useless.

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Ezra Klein · January 25, 2013