January 27, 2012

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S DECISION this month to install executive-branch nominees without the advice and consent of the Senate continues to be fodder for an intense and legitimate debate. But there should be no room for the kind of personal vitriol introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

Mr. Grassley is among those who believe the president overstepped his bounds with a recess appointment of the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two members of the National Labor Relations Board. He and other critics argue that these appointments are unconstitutional because the Senate was not in recess.

We took the opposite view and argued that Mr. Obama was within his rights to make such appointments in the face of sham congressional sessions that typically featured a lone senator gaveling in a seconds-long session. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, considered the constitutional conscience of the administration, agreed in an opinion signed by OLC chief Virginia A. Seitz. OLC officials during the George W. Bush administration came to a similar conclusion in a similar, though not identical, situation.

Mr. Grassley took to the floor of the Senate on Monday to voice his continued distress. His was a fiery but substantive critique until he began attacking Ms. Seitz’s motives and integrity.

Mr. Grassley recalled that, during her confirmation hearing, Ms. Seitz vowed not to “stand idly by” if she believed the administration was contemplating action that violated constitutional tenets. “And I suppose it is literally true that Ms. Seitz did not stand idly by,” Mr. Grassley said. “Rather, she actively became a lackey for the administration. She wrote a poorly reasoned opinion that placed loyalty to the president over loyalty to the rule of law.” He concluded by saying that he was “sorry the Senate confirmed her” and that “this is likely to be the last confirmation that she’ll ever experience.”

Aides for Mr. Grassley say that he was not threatening retribution but merely noting that the OLC opinion will come back to haunt Ms. Seitz, should she be tapped for another job that requires confirmation.

But Mr. Grassley went beyond acceptable bounds when, instead of simply disagreeing with Ms. Seitz’s conclusions, he impugned her independence and judgment. Does the senator not believe that one can have a different point of view without being intellectually corrupt? Were the Bush officials also blind lackeys for their president? The attack on Ms. Seitz’s reputation is particularly galling because individuals across the political spectrum know her as an honest and intelligent professional and not the partisan Mr. Grassley makes her out to be.