For Bush, the Fun Begins at Recess

With election season coming up, President Bush may well set a presidential record for the number of recess appointments.
With election season coming up, President Bush may well set a presidential record for the number of recess appointments. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By Al Kamen
Friday, June 29, 2007

Loop Fans have reported hearing an odd creaking sound in recent days and have been wondering what it was. After thorough investigation, we have determined that it was the venerable Senate Confirmation Door slowly closing on people wanting top-level jobs in the Bush administration.

This summer -- the seventh of a presidency -- is when the Senate's confirmation machinery -- especially when it's controlled by the other party -- starts slowing to a crawl.

And it probably doesn't help that some Senate Democrats were infuriated first by the recess appointment of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton in 2005 and especially by the April recess appointment of Sam Fox, a big donor to Republicans and to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth anti- Kerry campaign, as ambassador to Belgium.

Even in normal times, if your nomination papers are not up there before the August recess, your odds of getting a hearing and a confirmation in the fall are greatly diminished -- unless your name is Reid, Schumer or Durbin, or you slide through as part of a package with others.

And if you don't get a hearing this fall, then you'll be looking at confirmation in an election year -- something about as easy as filling an inside straight.

Career ambassadors, of course, and members of boards and commissions that can't function for lack of a quorum, probably can get confirmed. Confirmations to other jobs are very iffy.

But not to worry! There's another great option: a recess appointment, which at this point is just as good as a confirmation, since an appointment will expire pretty much at the end of the administration.

President Bush, who's never been a fan of that annoying "advice and consent" notion the Framers favored -- a majority of whom even wanted the Senate, not the president, to appoint executive branch officials -- is a firm believer in the beauty and simplicity of recess appointments. And he's on pace to set a record for the number of such appointments, as the accompanying chart shows.

As of June 4, Bush had filled 105 full-time positions with recess appointments. At a comparable point in his presidency, President Bill Clinton had used his recess appointment powers to install 42 people in full-time jobs. (And by then Clinton had dealt for four years with a GOP-controlled Senate.)

But Clinton accelerated the pace in December 1999 and by the end of his presidency had filled 95 full-time jobs and 45 part-time slots (on boards, commissions, councils and such) for a total of 140.

Bush has already named 171 people to full- and part-time jobs, and he's just entering the high season for presidential recess appointments -- the closing months of a presidency. President Ronald Reagan recessed 243 people to full-time and part-time jobs in his two terms -- 84 of them in his last year in office.

"There is a de facto freeze on confirmations after Jan. 1" of next year, said New York University professor Paul C. Light, an expert in these matters. "So if the nomination isn't done soon, the job isn't going to be filled through the Senate. After January 1, this administration will have more people on recess than a kindergarten." The rest will have "Acting" as their first names.

And recesses have never been easier. There's no constitutional definition of how long a Senate recess must be before the president can make an appointment, and the length has shrunk dramatically in recent years.

"Even a Sunday fishing trip counts as a recess these days," Light joked. "The Senate is losing its authority to confirm presidential appointees through recess," he said, a situation that would have the Framers "spinning in their graves."

The Bush administration has responded that the way to handle this is to exempt a great number of nominees from confirmation.

Someone could probably suggest that legislation is in order at least to clarify the ground rules on recesses.

And what better time than now -- when it appears that the Democrats will retain control and, polls say, may win the presidency -- for the Democrats in the Senate to push for some action? Senate Republicans might be thinking this wouldn't be a bad time to reassert Senate prerogatives.

But we certainly would not make that suggestion. We'd lose all the great material that recess fights have given us over the years.

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