Recess appointments and the size of government

February 6

This week in our originalism class, Eric Posner and I talked about Noel Canning, the recess appointments case. Both of us have already written plenty about this, so my response will be relatively short and not entirely about originalism. (Here’s Eric’s Slate piece, and here’s my Forbes piece, which is in turn similar to the amicus brief I worked on.)

In this week’s post, Eric points out that the federal government has grown immensely since the founding, and suggests that it is therefore “a shame” that the recess appointments will likely be invalidated by the Court. Even if we put the law to one side, I’m not sure I follow the normative logic. The federal government is larger than it used to be, as a descriptive matter, but is there reason to believe that is a good thing?

And even if we do think that the current size of government is much better than the old one, normative analysis should be about marginal change, not absolute size. Is there reason to believe that having a dozen fewer government officials here or there would be a bad thing? I’m skeptical. The total number of recess appointments is relatively small, and it is not clear whether they create net benefits or impose net costs.

That brings us back to law. Across a range of topics, Eric seems to have has much more confident judgments than I do about what institutional arrangements are normatively desirable. So perhaps that is why he is more inclined to think that originalism imposes serious costs by forcing us away from desirable arrangements, and I am inclined to say that it provides a benefit by giving us a baseline set of institutions from which we can depart if we marshal sufficient consensus.

UPDATE: And here is Eric’s reply. I think he gets the last word this week.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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