RECESS APPOINTMENTS are a tool that presidents should use sparingly -- in egregious cases where congressional gridlock has been unfair to the nominee and unhealthy for government. The Bush administration, though, is said to be weighing a spate of recess appointments to the Federal Election Commission, where the terms of four of six commissioners have expired.

This would be a gross misuse of the recess appointment power, and if the reports that he's planning it are correct, President Bush ought to think again. The vacancies at the FEC -- one commissioner has left; three others continue to serve while they await successors -- aren't the product of congressional inaction. In fact, there haven't been any nominations for the Senate to act on. Rather, the recess appointments would let a bipartisan cabal evade examination of, and a vote on, nominees who will control the commission's direction.

The FEC is an agency designed for failure and accomplished at that mission. Its commissioners are evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and they have more often acted in the interest of the politicians who appointed them than the election law they are supposed to enforce.

The reported slate of new commissioners includes more along the same lines, including a Republican campaign law expert with close ties to former House majority leader Tom DeLay and a Nevada lawyer who represented Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid in his 1998 recount but has little expertise in federal election law. Meanwhile, Democrats seem to be getting rid of the troublesome commission chairman, Democrat Scott E. Thomas, who's bucked party efforts to undermine the election law.

It's bad enough to oust an aggressive member and bring in more compliant commissioners to an already-feckless agency. Doing so without any opportunity for Senate scrutiny would be a particularly unfortunate approach to a commission that is, after all, supposed to ensure the functioning of the democratic system.