Recess Games

Friday, January 6, 2006

HISTORICALLY, PRESIDENT Bush's decision Wednesday to make 17 job appointments during a congressional recess isn't out of the ordinary. The Constitution grants the president "Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate." This device was intended as an emergency exception to the general confirmation rule, at a time when Congress had short sessions and frequent breaks. But presidents of both parties have, for decades now, seized on this power as a way to sidestep Senate opposition to their choices for key jobs. Ronald Reagan made 243 recess appointments, Bill Clinton made 140. With these new announcements, President Bush has made 123 recess appointments in five years.

What's worrying about many of Mr. Bush's recess nominees is the caliber of the candidates and the importance of the jobs in which they have been installed. Even before Wednesday's raft of appointments, the ambassador to the United Nations and the head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division held power by virtue of this maneuver. Now Mr. Bush has added the number two official at the Defense Department, Deputy Secretary Gordon R. England, and the head of the immigration bureau, Julie L. Myers -- hardly minor jobs.

Ms. Myers was chief of staff for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, but she has little experience with immigration issues. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who was given a recess appointment as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, is a long-standing Republican party loyalist and a failed Republican candidate for Maryland governor, but she has no refugee or humanitarian experience.

It's particularly ironic, and particularly disturbing, that Mr. Bush on Wednesday used this undemocratic maneuver to name three of the six members of the Federal Election Commission, including to two of the commission's Democratic seats. This was not a situation in which nominations had languished; Mr. Bush didn't make the nominations until the Senate was about to leave town, meaning that senators had no opportunity for hearings. That's the very least that should have happened, especially in the case of Republican Hans von Spakovsky, a Justice Department civil rights lawyer who was instrumental in approving a Georgia voter identification law over career lawyers' objections that it would harm black voters.

Finally, the resort to recess appointments is worrying because of what it reveals about the breakdown in relations between the White House and the Senate and the functioning of both institutions. Has it really become impossible for a Republican president to get a Republican Senate to confirm someone to the number two job at the Defense Department, in the middle of a war? The fact that the well-qualified Mr. England cannot be approved in the normal manner -- his appointment was held up over disputes about shipbuilding cuts and a dispute about how to handle his private-sector pension -- speaks volumes about the Senate's performance and the White House's inability to build political coalitions.


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