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Posts Tagged ‘National Labor Relations Board’

Permitting Legislative Repeal by Blocking Nominations: The DC Circuit Recess Appointment Disaster

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 31, 2013

From early in the 20th century through the 1980s, Congress had a habit of building into some of its legislation a little device called the one-House “legislative veto.” The idea was this: Congress would enact a statute allowing some federal agency to regulate something. But, with the one-House veto, either the House or Senate could take back that authority if it did not like the regulations the agency actually issued. In other words, a majority of one House could just change the law by itself, whether or not the other House (not to mention the president) agreed.

In a 1983 case  Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, the Supreme Court put a stop to this. The Court said that any action by Congress purporting to change the rights, obligations or legal relationships of persons outside Congress amounted to an exercise of the power to legislate. The Constitution, the Court said, gives Congress only one way to legislate: Majorities in both the House and the Senate must agree on a text to enact, and the president must sign it, or two-thirds of each House must vote to override the presidential veto. Neither the House, nor the Senate is entitled to make law all by itself.

In a January 25 ruling, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit pretty much assured the Senate exactly that power. Even worse, it afforded that power not to a majority of senators, but to a minority.

At stake in the ruling was the constitutionality of three appointments President Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board on January 4, 2012, during a recess of the Senate. Chiefly because of obstruction from the senators in the Republican minority, the Senate had already established a record of allowing administrative nominees to languish before confirming even noncontroversial appointments. (This included blocking a thoroughly qualified labor lawyer from the NLRB in 2010.) Rather than waiting to see that routine repeated, the president gave recess appointments to the NLRB nominees so that the Board could begin clearing a backlog  of hundreds of cases.

The current Senate confirmation process is a well-documented disgrace. A 2010 report  by the Center for American Progress found that, after a year in office, the Obama administration lagged behind all four previous administrations in terms of the percentage of Senate-confirmed executive agency positions. This was true, even though President Obama had actually spent fewer days making nominations than the three previous presidents. The reason: The Senate took longer to confirm President Obama’s nominees to executive agencies than nominees submitted by both Presidents Bush and by President Clinton.

The same rank partisanship is evident in the Senate’s dismal record on judicial appointments. A September, 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service looked at delays in confirming non-Supreme Court nominees deemed uncontroversial. We know they were uncontroversial because (1) their nominations were eventually reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee favorably either by voice vote or by a unanimous roll call vote, and (2) their nominations were eventually approved by the full Senate by voice vote, or if a roll call vote was held, approved with five or fewer nay votes. The report’s key conclusions regarding post-1980 judicial confirmations were as follows:

“For uncontroversial circuit court nominees, the mean and median number of days from nomination to confirmation ranged from a low of 64.5 and 44.0 days, respectively, during the Reagan presidency to a high of 227.3 and 218.0 days, respectively, during the Obama presidency…For uncontroversial district court nominees, the mean and median number of days from nomination to confirmation ranged from a low of 69.9 and 41.0 days, respectively, during the Reagan presidency to a high of 204.8 and 208.0 days, respectively, during the Obama presidency.”

Which brings us to the DC Circuit opinion. The Constitution provides that the president may “fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” As interpreted by three GOP-appointed judges, this power is triggered, however, only if “the recess of the Senate” happens to be the break between its annual sessions — and then, yet more surprising, only if an office actually becomes vacant during that break. Because the NLRB vacancies had not opened up during the Senate’s intersession break, and the president did not make his recess appointments during that break, the court found them impermissible.

Under this view, however, it is painfully evident what a president may do if (a) he sends to the Senate a timely nomination for an executive branch position that becomes vacant while the Senate is formally convened and (b) a minority of senators just sit on the nomination and refuse to bring it to a vote. In a word, “nothing.”

The constitutional impotence that the DC Circuit would impose on the president means that filibustering senators can prevent an agency from functioning — thus effectively repealing the law that created the agency and authorizing its functions — simply by refusing to confirm an agency head or enough voting members to constitute a quorum.

Stopping law from being enforced as written was precisely the reason why GOP senators blocked Richard Cordray’s 2011 nomination to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau — which led to his recess appointment also on January 4, 2012. Having seen a prior NLRB nominee blocked for ideological reasons in 2010, President Obama decided to use the recess appointments power to make sure the agency would be up and doing business throughout 2012. That’s what the DC Circuit stopped.

Of course, the Senate is not intended to be a rubber stamp. Senators who believe a presidential nominee is unqualified are entitled, if not obligated, to vote the nominee down. But stalling nomination votes simply to keep laws from being enforced — effectively repealing the laws that cannot be enforced without the nominees in place — is utterly inconsistent with the Senate’s proper confirmation role. It amounts to one-House lawmaking, and violates the spirit, if not the letter of the Constitution.

The DC Circuit opinion licenses something actually worse than the legislative veto. It allows legislation by obstruction. If the court’s ruling stands, we’re surely going to see more of it.

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Recess Appointments and President Obama’s Surprising Restraint

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 6, 2012

For all the brouhaha surrounding President Obama’s recess appointments this week of three new members for the National Labor Relations Board and of Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, what is most surprising – and most welcome from a constitutional perspective – is the President’s restraint in his use of the recess appointment power. What’s scary is the precedent it may set for other Administrations’ less judicious use of that power.

Article II of the Constitution authorizes the President “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The Constitution does not require that the recess be of any particular length or for any particular reason. The Senate was out on a three-day hiatus when President Obama made his appointments. His act squares neatly with the constitutional text.

Some observers may be confused by the Article I provision stating: “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days . . . .” Because the House (at the behest of Republican Senators) is currently not allowing the Senate to adjourn for more than three days, the Senate has been going through a repeated ritual of convening in “pro forma” session every third day, but without any capacity to do legislative business. (Harry Reid invented this technique in 2007 to forestall recess appointments by George W. Bush.) But there is no constitutional requirement that a Senate recess triggering the President’s appointments power be an adjournment to which the House of Representatives has consented.

The most colorable objection to the Obama recess appointments is that they arguably flout a norm, or informal custom, of interbranch interaction. That is, Presidents ordinarily do not resort to their recess appointment power during short recesses. It is understood on both sides that the Framers originally contemplated a Congress that would convene only a few months a year. They gave the President a power of recess appointment so that he could keep the government functioning effectively even when federal legislators had returned to their far-flung farms, law offices, or other places of non-government business. Recognizing that the recess appointments power was thus conferred for a limited purpose and not in order for Presidents to lightly circumvent the Senate’s confirmation role, Presidents have typically – though not invariably – used their recess appointment power sparingly. (A good nonpartisan account appears here.)

As I argued in my 2009 book, Madison’s Nightmare, norms of this sort are essential to the effective functioning of any separation of powers system – perhaps to any non-dictatorial system of government at all. A system of separated powers can work only if each branch refrains from pressing its powers to the utmost limits of textual plausibility under a written Constitution. However aggressive the interbranch competition for policy influence, each branch must ultimately respect the purposes and capacities that the Constitution assigns to its sister branches. From the end of the McCarthy era through the end of the Carter Administration, Congress and the executive typically acted in this spirit of mutual restraint, even as the country navigated its way through the upheavals of Vietnam and the civil rights revolution.

Since the Reagan Administration, however – and most especially since the second Reagan Administration – these norms have been under steady attack. The attackers usually – though not invariably – are right-wing Republicans who quite correctly view a checks and balances system as an obstacle to their capacity to jerk our national government onto a profoundly more conservative course than is warranted by public sentiment.

For example, nothing in the Constitution explicitly forbade the Reagan Administration to circumvent the appropriations process and fund its own foreign policy in Central America. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly rejects lying about a sexual affair as a ground for impeachment. Nowhere does the Constitution impose a time limit on Senate consideration for routine executive and judicial appointments. But the Iran-Contra affair, the Clinton impeachment, and the GOP use of the Senate filibuster to impose unprecedented delays in staffing both the executive and judicial branches nonetheless stand out as breaches of constitutional governance. These practices may or may not be unconstitutional, but they exhibit a glaring disrespect for the purposes and capacities assigned to non-GOP-controlled government institutions.

Seen in this light, President Obama’s recourse to his recess appointment power was really the only plausible way of responding to a pattern of Senate behavior – induced by the Republican minority – that paid no regard to his authority and obligation to appoint officers of the United States to a host of positions critical to effective governance. It is notable that he targeted his latest appointments with just that limiting principle in mind – that is, he filled vacancies only in agencies that were utterly disabled from carrying out their legally assigned missions because leadership nominations were languishing in the Senate.

Constitutionally, President Obama could have gone further. He could have filled other executive branch positions that the Senate has been holding hostage for reasons unrelated to the merits of the nominees. He could have filled judicial vacancies. He could have used his power under Article II to adjourn Congress, thus creating his own recess of the Senate during which he could make these appointments.

That President Obama has not gone to these lengths demonstrates a commendable inclination to continue to respect the Senate’s confirmation power. It also continues a tradition of making recess judicial appointments only in extremely rare circumstances, in large part because – although such appointments are constitutional under the text – their limited duration stands in tension with the Framers’ conspicuous commitment to judicial independence, embodied in the constitutional guarantee of lifetime tenure.

Some Senate Republicans have apparently reacted to President Obama by threatening to be even less cooperative with the executive branch. But it’s hard to see how much less cooperation they could offer. The intransigence of the House Tea Party Caucus, plus the GOP Senate minority’s filibuster abuse, has rendered the 2011 session of Congress the least productive in terms of non-trivial legislation since the late 19th century. The White House has correctly discerned that the public has tired of this obstinacy. As Larry Lessig has said, our uncooperative Congress has earned approval ratings probably lower than the approval ratings of Parliament in the thirteen colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. (One suspects, if the public were yet more familiar with the bills the House was trying to pass, its opinion would actually be even lower.) For this reason, the White House is surely undaunted by the prospect of congressional hearings examining its appointments powers. The charts and graphs the Administration can produce illustrating the current Senate’s unprecedented delays for even the most routine appointments would make for impressive video.

The real danger in the latest recess appointments is that subsequent Presidents may well use President Obama’s expansive understanding of “recess” to staff courts and agencies with controversial nominees who they know Senators are opposing on the merits. In a fine analysis of the situation, Larry Tribe has argued that the Cordray and NLRB appointments do not “free the president to make recess appointments whenever the Senate breaks for lunch or takes routine weekend vacations that conceal no objective scheme to frustrate presidential appointments.” He concludes that “the president can resort to recess appointments of this kind only in instances of transparent and intolerable burdens on his authority. Article II charges him to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’; this duty, combined with appointment and recess-appointment powers, requires an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes.”

I have two related fears about this speculation, however. The first is that, although Professor Tribe has stated an excellent limiting principle for the exercise of the recess appointments power, it is not clear that courts would enforce it. Federal courts typically resist getting in the middle of power clashes between the elected branches, and sorting out which recess appointments are and are not proper under even a normatively compelling (and easy to enforce) constitutional principle may simply be a job they are unwilling to do.

My second fear is based on the right-wing’s willingness – even eagerness – to accelerate whatever innovations in interbranch struggle that the Democrats originate. The Democrats want to filibuster appellate court nominees? Fine, the Republican will filibuster trial court nominees. A Democratic Senate majority comes up with an “in forma session” ruse to try to stop a Republican President from making recess appointments? Fine, a GOP Senate minority will seek to accomplish the same result by enlisting the GOP House majority to stop the Senate majority from adjourning. Talk about using a constitutional power for an unintended purpose!

President Obama’s most recent recess appointments are themselves a modest counterpunch against attempts by House and Senate Republicans to subvert his capacity to perform his constitutionally assigned role. If the Senate wants the President to back off, it should start performing its confirmation role responsibly. If recent history is any guide, however, Republican leaders – who no doubt hope to control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2013 – will be thinking up rather different contingency plans should divided government persist. These plans are likely to intensify an already corrosive breakdown of interbranch norms of respect and cooperation that are the key to effective governance.

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