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Posts Tagged ‘Recess Appointments’

Catching Up on My Blog Posts

Posted by Peter M. Shane on June 30, 2014

I’ve tried to be reliable in making sure that there appear on Shane Reactions all blog posts and essays I have contributed to other online venues, but I’ve fallen behind.  In the event anyone is looking for my collected online venting (between October, 2013 and June, 2014, that is), here’s the list of what I neglected to cross-post:

Two Cheers for Recess Appointments, RegBlog (June 26, 2014).

The Non-Constitutional Non-Crisis, Slate (June 5, 2014) — about the Bergdhahl-GITMO detainee trade.

“Privatization” is Not “Privacy,” Huffington Post, Apr. 11, 2014.

The True Spirit of Law School Reform, Chronicle of Higher Education, (Mar. 12, 2014).

The Myth of the Anti-Government Constitution, The Atlantic (Jan. 11, 2014).

Posted in Congress, U.S. Presidency | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Catching Up on My Blog Posts

In NLRB Recess Appointments Case, Roberts Court Can Now Show It Knows How to Exercise Judicial Restraint

Posted by Peter M. Shane on July 30, 2013

Bloomberg BNA yesterday published a brief essay of mine — a link to the full text appears below — arguing that, if the Senate confirms a full complement of members for the National Labor Relations Board, the Obama administration should ask the Supreme Court in Noel Canning v. NLRB to remand the case, without decision, to be re-heard by the NLRB. The Court should grant the request, showing a judicial restraint for which the Roberts Court is not known—and returning the recess appointments controversy to the elected branches of government, where it belongs.  If the SG does not pursue this course, the Court should use the political question doctrine to avoid unnecessary judicial interference with the dynamics of the President’s and Senate’s shared appointments power.

Peter Shane Argument for Judicial Restraint in Recess Appointments Cases

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The Future of Recess Appointments in Light of Noel Canning v. NLRB

Posted by Peter M. Shane on May 28, 2013

A Jan. 23, 2013, panel decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit casts doubt on more than the future of two current federal agencies. It calls into question the legality of innumerable actions by hundreds of federal officials counting back to the days of the Reagan Administration.1

In Noel Canning v. NLRB,2 the court invalidated Obama’s January 2012 invocation of his recess appointments power to name three members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The panel unanimously concluded that the recess appointments power was available to presidents only between sessions of Congress. Yet well over 300 federal officials since 1981 have received such appointments during congressional sessions.

Two of the three judges went further. They interpreted the recess appointments power as applying only to offices that first become vacant between sessions of Congress. That holding would likely invalidate most of the more than 300 additional recess appointments that presidents since Reagan have made between congressional sessions.

THE PRO FORMA SESSION GAMBIT

The Noel Canning decision arose in the context of an ongoing struggle between presidents and Congress over the use of the recess appointments power. The Constitution conveys that power in a paragraph that 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.”3

When the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2007, they began a practice of conducting so-called “pro forma sessions” during those recesses that occur within sessions of Congress. These pro forma sessions typically last only a couple of minutes, if that, during which the only business conducted—often by a single senator—is simply a call to order and adjournment until the next pro forma session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)—now a supporter of the contested Obama appointments—originally took the position that such pro forma sessions converted otherwise lengthy recesses into shorter adjournments, each of which would be too brief to trigger the president’s recess appointments power.4 Although apparently advised by the Justice Department that his recess appointments power remained intact,5 President George W. Bush declined to challenge the Reid strategy.

Between Dec. 17, 2011 and Jan. 23, 2012, the Senate again met only during ten pro forma sessions—but this time, not at the Democrats’ behest. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution provides that “[n]either House, during the session of Congress, shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days … .” The evident purpose of this clause is to enable each House to keep the other in town in order to assure that business between them may be conducted. House Republicans, however—who were by no means staying in town to conduct business of their own—used this clause to deny the Senate permission to adjourn for more than three days between the end of the first and the start of the second session of the 112th Congress. The intent, once again, was to block presidential recess appointments.

CRISES AT THE NLRB AND CFPB

Against this procedural background, Obama faced a late 2011 administrative crisis involving two federal agencies. Obama had nominated labor attorney Craig Becker to the NLRB on July 9, 2009. When Senate Republicans filibustered Becker’s confirmation vote, Obama gave him a recess appointment to the Board over eight months later, on March 28, 2010. He resubmitted the nomination on Jan. 26, 2011, but the Republicans persisted in their filibuster. Republicans also prevented a vote on a second January, 2011 nominee, Terrence F. Flynn.

As a result of these filibusters, the NLRB was facing a calamity brought on by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in a case called New Process Steel v. NLRB.6 The Court there interpreted the National Labor Relations Act to require three lawfully participating members to be in place in order for the NLRB to act. The expiration of the 2010 Becker recess appointment threatened to reduce the Board’s membership to two. Thus, on Dec. 14, 2011, Obama withdrew the Becker nomination and forwarded to the Senate nominations for Sharon Block and Richard F. Griffin Jr. When the Senate predictably did not act on these nominations by the end of the first session of the 112th Congress, Obama set the stage for Noel Canning v. NLRB by giving recess appointments to Block and Griffin—and to Terrence F. Flynn—on Jan. 4, 2012.

Although the Noel Canning decision technically dealt only with these three NLRB appointments, Obama also made a fourth recess appointment on Jan. 4, 2012. He appointed Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created by the Dodd-Frank Act. The Senate had sat on the Cordray nomination since July 18, 2011, because of Republican hopes to force an amendment to the Act that would convert the CFPB into a multi-member commission. Because the Dodd-Frank Act conditions certain of the agency’s powers on the appointment of the agency head,7 a vacancy in the director’s position would disable the CFPB from carrying out a number of its significant supervisory, enforcement, and rulemaking powers.

THE COURT’S REASONING IN NOEL CANNING

Noel Canning, a Pepsi-Cola bottling firm in Yakima, Washington, sued in the D.C. Circuit to overturn an NLRB order finding that management had unlawfully refused to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters local representing its production employees. A panel comprising Judges David Sentelle, Karen Henderson, and Thomas Griffith— appointees of Presidents Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43, respectively—concluded that the NLRB’s decision was legally supportable, but that it could not be enforced. The panel held that the Obama recess appointments were invalid and that, without them, the NLRB lacked the necessary quorum to conduct business.

Judge Sentelle’s opinion for the court reached its conclusion based on what it took to be the original “public meaning” of the Recess Appointments Clause. The panel determined that the phrase “the recess” in that clause would have been understood in the late 18th century to refer only to the period of adjournment between two sessions of Congress. Because the second session of the 112th Congress convened on Jan. 3, 2012, the court reasoned that appointments made on Jan. 4 were impermissible “intrasession” appointments.

Judge Sentelle went on to argue further, with only Judge Henderson in concurrence, that the original meaning of “happen” in the Recess Appointments Clause was “to occur.” For that reason, he wrote, the Recess Appointments Clause, properly read, would allow presidents to fill only those vacancies that first arise during recesses between sessions of Congress. Under this reasoning, the president could not legally fill a vacancy created by an official’s death even a day prior to the Senate’s adjournment, no matter how long the Senate remained in recess.

The court insisted that its strict reading of the Recess Appointments Clause was necessary to preserve the Senate’s critical confirmation role in the process of appointing officers of the United States, and to create a bright-line rule susceptible to objective judicial enforcement.

AN AUDACIOUS OPINION

For lawyers, two things are immediately noteworthy about the Noel Canning opinion. The first is that the court struck down the Obama appointees on the broadest constitutional ground imaginable. The panel could have decided the case against the NLRB by concluding that, whether or not the Recess Appointments Clause permits intrasession appointments, adjournments of three days are too short to count as a “recess,” and that the 2012 pro forma sessions effectively divided what would have been a 20-day recess into a series of mere three-day breaks. That analysis is debatable, but it would have had the obvious virtue of avoiding the unnecessary decision of larger constitutional issues. The Supreme Court has repeatedly described judicial modesty as the appropriate stance to take in conducting judicial review.

Second, the D.C. panel reached its conclusions despite significant contrary custom and authority. Presidents since the 1820s have consistently taken the position that vacancies “happen” during a recess of the Senate if they “happen to exist” during that recess. Congress itself effectively ratified that position in enacting the so-called Pay Act,8 which allows recess appointees to receive their salaries even if they were appointed to vacancies that occurred when the Senate was in session. The narrow reading of “happen” on which Noel Canning relies has been rejected by earlier opinions of the Second,9 Ninth,10 and Eleventh11 Circuits.

The permissibility of intrasession appointments is arguably a closer question. But presidents have consistently asserted authority to make intrasession appointments since 1921. As noted earlier, intrasession recess appointments have been as common since the first Reagan administration as intersession appointments. The Eleventh Circuit upheld their legality in Evans v. Stephens.12

In making his January, 2012 appointments, Obama acted under Justice Department advice memorialized in a Jan. 6, 2012, Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that relied, in turn, on earlier institutional precedents. In an official 1921 opinion for President Harding, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty adopted a functional view of “recess,” derived from a 1905 Senate committee report; the 2012 OLC memo follows the same approach. The Senate committee asserted: “The word ‘recess’ is one of ordinary, not technical signification, and it is evidently used in the constitutional provision in its common and popular sense.”13 The report went on describe the Senate as being in recess when “its members have no duty of attendance; when its Chamber is empty; when, because of its absence, it can not receive communications from the president or participate as a body in making appointments.”14

OLC observed in its 2012 opinion that the Senate’s 2011 and 2012 pro forma sessions were conducted pursuant to a unanimous consent resolution that had provided there would be “no business conducted” during those sessions.15 As viewed, therefore, by Obama, the pro forma sessions left unchanged the reality that the Senate was unavailable from Jan. 3 to Jan. 23, 2012 to act on nominations. The pro forma sessions left the “recess” intact.

WEIGHING THE ARGUMENTS

The strongest arguments against the Obama appointments support not the broad D.C. Circuit ruling, but the narrower analysis it eschewed. Opponents could argue that, notwithstanding the resolution promising “no business conducted,” the pro forma sessions did, in fact, keep the Senate available to consider nominations had the Senate chosen to do so. As pointed out by former OLC head Charles J. Cooper in testimony to the House Education and the Workforce Committee,16 the Senate did, at one of its pro forma 2011 sessions, pass by unanimous consent a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut, as requested by Obama.17 Should this argument prevail, the President’s Jan. 4 appointments would have been constitutional only if the three day Jan. 3-6 break counted as a “recess” adequate to trigger his recess appointments powers. No court has held a three-day break to be sufficient for this purpose, and executive branch pronouncements on the issue have not been consistent.18

The strongest argument in support of the president’s position rests on the proposition that the Constitution intends that the President to take the leading role in staffing the executive branch. Urging New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton explained the design of the appointments process in these terms: “[O]ne man of discernment is better fitted to analyze and estimate the peculiar qualities adapted to particular offices, than a body of men of equal or perhaps even of superior discernment.”19 The Senate was given a role in the appointments process not to impede the President’s policy agenda, but as a check on potential corruption: “[The Senate] would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity.”20 Protecting the Senate’s confirmation role at the expense of the President’s appointments responsibility turns the constitutional design on its head.

If the President’s position is rejected, then presidents—who are constitutionally charged to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”21—could be stymied permanently in the execution of their administrative responsibilities by a Senate minority determined to block appointments. Executive administration could even be blocked by a House of Representatives intent, as was the 2011 House, on disabling a Senate majority from adjourning. Because there is no plausible argument to be made that the House is intended to have a role in the appointments process, this perverse result is a powerful argument that “recesses” do not change their constitutional character because of pro forma sessions or, alternatively, that three-day breaks count as constitutional “recesses.” Three-day breaks are the longest periods of adjournment that the Senate may take without regard to the wishes of the House.

The textual arguments that the D.C. Circuit mustered for the narrowest possible reading of the President’s appointments power are weak. There is significant evidence that the Founding Generation understood a legislative “recess” to be a break that could occur either within or between legislative sessions. There is likewise evidence that 18th century readers would have understood the word “happen” to mean “happen to exist.” A straightforward textual reading of the President’s power “to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate” would validate his authority “to fill up, during a period of adjournment either within or between sessions of the Senate, all vacancies that may happen to exist during that period of adjournment.” This is plainly the most practical reading of the Recess Appointments Clause, and the D.C. Circuit opinion rejecting it has the feel of semantic cherry-picking.

IMPACT ON THE AGENCIES

Standing on its own, Noel Canning is of limited practical significance. It affects only one NLRB order and is binding precedent only in the D.C. Circuit. The NLRB has continued to hear and decide cases notwithstanding its D.C. Circuit loss.

As well summarized, however, in an April, 2013 Congressional Research Service report,22 the potential impacts of the decision go much further. In the year between the disputed recess appointments and the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, the NLRB ruled on over 200 cases, any of which could be challenged in litigation on recess appointments grounds. Over 60 published decisions have been rendered by the Board since Noel Canning, along with a yet larger number of unpublished orders. Any party aggrieved by an NLRB decision has the discretion to appeal that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which now obviously poses a problem for the enforcement of future NLRB orders.

Aggrieved parties might also use Noel Canning to challenge actions undertaken by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. The Dodd-Frank Act transferred to the CFPB a variety of supervision, enforcement and rulemaking powers previously delegated to other agencies, which the Act also permitted the Secretary of the Treasury to implement prior to the “confirmation” of a CFPB Director. A significant number of additional authorities, however, were vested exclusively in the Director, once duly in office.

Based on Noel Canning, all the rulemaking and enforcement actions undertaken by Director Richard Cordray are susceptible to a recess appointments challenge. Should the director’s appointment be invalidated, however, his exercise of any powers merely transferred to the CFPB from other agencies could be subsequently ratified by action of the Secretary of the Treasury, to whom those powers would revert.

The reasoning of Noel Canning calls into question not only the rules and order of the NLRB and CFPB, but all official actions of recess appointees who received either intrasession appointments or who were appointed to fill vacancies that first occurred when the Senate was in session. Yet even courts inclined to adopt the reasoning of Noel Canning might leave pre-Noel Canning actions intact under the so-called “de facto officer” doctrine. That doctrine “confers validity upon acts performed by a person acting under the color of official title even though it is later discovered that the legality of that person’s appointment or election to office is deficient.”23 It guards against “the chaos that would result from multiple and repetitious suits challenging every action taken by every official whose claim to office could be open to question, and seeks to protect the public by insuring the orderly functioning of the government despite technical defects in title to office.”24

ANTICIPATING THE SUPREME COURT

The government has asked the Supreme Court to hear Noel Canning, and it would be surprising for the Court not to do so. The importance of the issues, the conflict in the circuits, and the expansiveness of the D.C. Circuit rationale all augur for Supreme Court review.

Predicting the outcome, however, is all but impossible. The Court is unlikely to adopt the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning because it goes so far beyond what is necessary to decide the case. That leaves, however, at least three options for the Court: It could uphold the Obama appointments because a three-day break is a recess or because the pro forma sessions left the relevant 20-day recess intact. It could uphold the Obama appointments because intrasession recess appointments to fill vacancies that arose at any time are constitutionally permissible, and the length of adjournment necessary to constitute a “recess” is best regarded as a political question to be fought out between the executive and legislative branches. Or, the Court could overturn the appointments following the more modest rationale that three days are too short to count as a “recess,” and the Jan. 3-23 “recess” was no more than a series of three-day breaks.

For Justices Scalia and Thomas, the D.C. Circuit’s textualist methodology will be attractive, but its execution by the lower court was clumsy. These Justices will also be aware that the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning could seriously weaken the presidency as an institution, and each is a reliable defender of executive power in almost all constitutional contexts. The same is likely true of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Kennedy. They will not be oblivious to the institutional implications of deciding the case against the NLRB.

On the other hand, the current Justice best known for a pragmatic style of constitutional interpretation—Justice Breyer—is also an institutional veteran of the Senate, having served as both a Special Counsel and later as Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He will not be dismissive of the Senate’s role in the confirmation process.

In short, the recess appointments issue—occurring at the confluence of concerns over executive power, constitutional interpretation, and party politics—resists easy categorization. The Noel Canning reasoning is unlikely to survive. Beyond that, we can only guess.

THE FUTURE OF RECESS APPOINTMENTS – AND OF CONGRESS

What many observers have characterized as a breakdown in the process of nomination and confirmation highlights a critical feature of constitutional government: The effective operation of the separation of powers system depends as much on informal norms or customs as it does on the constitutional text. Until recent years, presidents and Senates have generally behaved as though recess appointments should be rare, and nominees—especially to noncontroversial positions—should receive relatively prompt Senate up-or-down votes. Constitutional text, however, guarantees neither proposition, and recent behavior threatens to eviscerate these understandings.

A September, 2012 Congressional Research Service report documented the breakdown in norms by examining delays in Senate floor votes on noncontroversial presidential nominees to lower court judgeships.26 The report focused on nominees whom the Senate Judiciary Committee approved either by voice vote or unanimous roll call, and whose nominations were eventually approved by the full Senate with five or fewer dissenters. The report found: “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.”27 In other words, as compared to the Reagan years, the Senate is taking somewhere between three and five times longer, on average, to confirm judicial nominees about whom there is virtually no disagreement.

If the Obama appointments are upheld and if the pattern of Senate obstruction persists, one can reasonably predict far more recess appointments in the future. Of course, presidents will always have significant disincentives to use recess appointments. Such appointments can antagonize senators whose support is necessary for other business. They reduce stability in administration. When used for judges, recess appointments create the dangerous situation that cases supposed to be decided by appointees with life tenure are instead decided by judges who are effectively on probation and too easily worried about alienating the Senate that has to vote on them.

But recess appointments are a president’s primary tool for pushing back against Senate intransigence. If Senate filibusters persist, and should minority Senators block nominations in hopes of stalling agencies out of business, presidents will have no real alternative to ratcheting up the recess appointment device.

If Noel Canning is upheld, then the future depends on the grounds for decision. Should the Supreme Court agree with the D.C. Circuit that recess appointments are permissible only during intersession recesses and only for positions that first become vacant during those recesses, recess appointments will likely disappear—or presidents may engage in their own “creative” tactics, insisting on resignations during intersession recesses so that the resulting vacancies can be immediately filled.

On the other hand, if the Obama appointments are nullified only because three-day adjournments are not “recesses,” and pro forma sessions effectively break recesses into three-day breaks, then much will depend on the response of future Senates. Recess appointments will continue when the party that occupies the White House controls both the Senate and House. The Senate will not worry about recess appointments by a president of the majority party, and the House will not disable the Senate from recessing for lengthy periods.

If, however, either the House or the Senate is controlled by a party different from the president’s, then the pro forma session appointments block is likely to be institutionalized. If the opposing party controls the Senate, the Senate will adopt pro forma sessions on its own initiative. If the opposing party controls only the House, the House will use its Article I power to prevent the Senate from adjourning for more than three days.

This last scenario—the scenario that actually played out in 2011 and 2012—raises yet another dramatic possibility for the breakdown of constitutional norms. The Senate could take the position that it need not comply with the House’s Article I objections to adjournment unless the House itself remains in session—which the House may well resist doing. In other words, a Senate controlled by the president’s party could ignore the House’s lack of consent to adjourn if it regards the objection as illegitimate. The Senate could simply adjourn sine die at will. The House would have no legal remedy against the Senate, and the decline in institutional comity that seems to have overtaken the federal government since 1981 will accelerate.

(© 2013 Bloomberg Finance L.P. Originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.)

[1]  Henry Hogue, et al., The Noel Canning Decision and Recess Appointments Made from 1981-2013, at 4 (CRS Feb. 4, 2013) (tabulating presidential recess appointments since 1981).

[2]   705 F.3d 490 (D.C. Cir. 2013).

[3]   U.S. Const., Art. II, § 2, ¶ 3.

[4]   Lawfulness of Recess Appointments During a Recess of the Senate Notwithstanding Periodic Pro Forma Sessions (O.L.C. Jan. 6, 2012) [hereafter, OLC Recess Appointments Opinion], citing 154 Cong. Rec. S7558 (daily ed. July 28, 2008) (statement of Sen. Reid), and 153 Cong. Rec. S14609 (daily ed. Nov. 16, 2007) (statement of Sen. Reid) (“[T]he Senate will be coming in for pro forma sessions . . . to prevent recess appointments.”).

[5] Id., at 4, citing Memorandum to File, from John P. Elwood, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Lawfulness of Making Recess Appointment During Adjournment of the Senate Notwithstanding Periodic “Pro Forma Sessions” (Jan. 9, 2009).

[6]  130 S. Ct. 2635 (2010).

[7]   12 U.S.C. § 5586(a).

[8]   5 USC § 5503.

[9]   United States v. Allocco, 305 F.2d 704 (2nd Cir. 1962).

[10]   United States v. Woodley, 751 F.2d 1008 (9th Cir. 1985).

[11]   Evans v. Stephens, 387 F.3d 1220 (11th Cir. 2004).

[12]   Id.

[13]  S. Rept. No. 4839, 58th Cong., 3rd Sess. 3823-3824 (1905), quoted in Precedents of the House of Representatives, § 6687, at 852-853.

[14]   Id.

[15]   157 Cong. Rec. S8783 (Dec. 17, 2011).

[16]   Statement of Charles J. Cooper Before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Concerning “The NLRB Recess Appointments: Implications for America’s Workers and Employers,” 2 (Feb. 7, 2012), available at http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/02.07.12_cooper.pdf.

[17]   157 Cong. Rec. S8789 (Dec. 23, 2011).

[18]   OLC Recess Appointments Opinion, supra note 4, at 9 n. 17.

[19]   The Federalist, No. 76 (Hamilton).

[20]   Id.

[21]   U.S. Const., Art. II, § 3.

[22]   David H. Carpenter and Todd Garvey, Practical Implications of Noel Canning on the NLRB and CFPB (CRS Apr. 1, 2013).

[23]   Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177, 180 (1995).

[24]   Id. at 180-81.

[25]   Carpenter and Garvey, supra note 22, at 10.

[26]   Barry J. McMillion, Length of Time from Nomination to Confirmation for “Uncontroversial” U.S. Circuit and District Court Nominees: Detailed Analysis, at 2 (CRS Sept. 18, 2012).

[27]   Id.

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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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Two More Reasons Why the D.C. Circuit was “Wrong” and “Wrong” on Recess Appointments

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 30, 2013

The opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit voiding President Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB is a little like a Rob Schneider movie — the more you think about it, the worse it seems.

The opinion purports to rest on a historically grounded reading of Article II of the Constitution. The relevant text says, “The President shall have Power 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.”

All three D.C. judges read this language to mean that the President may fill vacancies only between “sessions” of the Senate – that is, between the period of time between when the Senate adjourns “sine die” (without a date) at the end of one year’s business and when it first assembles for the next year’s business. The first of these dates typically occurs in late fall. Under the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, the second date is now January 3 of each year.

Two of the three judges read into the language an additional limitation.  They asserted that the President may fill only those vacancies that first arise during intersession breaks. If an advice-and-consent position becomes vacant, say, on January 4, and the Senate leaves town for the whole summer after sitting on the President’s nomination for six months, the President is just out of luck. As these judges read the Constitution, the President may not even fill the vacancy if it still exists when the Senate finally does adjourn sine die.

This second conclusion is ludicrous as a practical matter, and history utterly refutes it. Felix Frankfurter wrote in his famous Youngstown concurrence: “Deeply embedded traditional ways of conducting government cannot supplant the Constitution or legislation, but they give meaning to the words of a text or supply them. It is an inadmissibly narrow conception of American constitutional law to confine it to the words of the Constitution and to disregard the gloss which life has written upon them.” In this case, executive branch interpretation long ago rejected the D.C. Circuit view of appointment-eligible vacancies, and Congress itself has decisively accepted the executive branch view.

In 1823, Attorney General William Wirt concluded in a formal opinion that the Article II phrase refers to all vacancies that happen to exist during “the Recess.” This was, he wrote, “the only construction of the Constitution which is compatible with its spirit, reason, and purpose.” As explained in a recent report  by the Congressional Research Service, beginning in 1855, formal Attorneys General opinions accepted the Wirt interpretation, “even with respect to newly created offices that had never been filled.” The question first reached a federal court in 1880, and that court, like every other court to reach the issue until last week, accepted the Wirt view as proper.

Yet more remarkably, we know that Congress itself has endorsed this interpretation. In 1940, Congress codified a statute, 5 USC 5503, which purports to limit the circumstances under which a recess appointee can be paid from Treasury funds. In general, the statute bars payment to “an individual appointed during a recess of the Senate to fill a vacancy in an existing office, if the vacancy existed while the Senate was in session and was by law required to be filled by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, until the appointee has been confirmed by the Senate.”

But Congress gave its rule three exceptions. A recess appointee may be paid “if the vacancy arose within 30 days before the end of the session of the Senate.” A recess appointee may be paid, “if, at the end of the session, a nomination for the office, other than the nomination of an individual appointed during the preceding recess of the Senate, was pending before the Senate for its advice and consent.” A recess appointee may be paid “if a nomination for the office was rejected by the Senate within 30 days before the end of the session and an individual other than the one whose nomination was rejected thereafter receives a recess appointment.”

All of these exceptions – crafted by the legislative branch itself – obviously refer to and acquiesce in recess appointments to positions that became vacant while the Senate was in session. This is nothing less than explicit congressional ratification of the position that the D.C. Circuit rejects. To quote Frankfurter again: “[A] systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of the Congress and never before questioned, engaged in by Presidents who have also sworn to uphold the Constitution, making as it were such exercise of power part of the structure of our government, may be treated as a gloss on ‘executive Power’ vested in the President by § 1 of Art. II.” The D.C. Circuit should have heeded this wisdom.

The court also got the first issue wrong in insisting that the only recess to which Article II refers is “the recess” between formal sessions of Congress. As a wise commenter on one of my earlier posts pointed out, this a plausible reading only if the Framers magically anticipated how Congress, not yet in existence, would organize its calendar. In fact, nothing in the Constitution suggests that the Framers anticipated that a Congress would organize itself into sessions of any particular length, much less sessions that formally begin with an opening call to order and go into “the recess” only by adjourning sine die.

In addition to the Recess Appointments Clause, references to a “session” of Congress occur in two other places in the original Constitution. Under Article I, section 5, “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.” The most natural reading of this clause is that “the Session” refers to whenever Congress is sitting. Nothing dictates that “the Session” referred to will last a day, a month, or a year.

Indeed, if “the Session” is read to refer to an assembly of specific duration, the most natural reading would equate “the Session” with an entire two-year congressional sitting, what we now call, “a Congress.” Importing that meaning into the Recess Appointments Clause would yield the remarkable result that a recess appointee who takes office early in January of an odd-numbered year might be entitled to serve for nearly four years thereafter.

Section 6 of Article I similarly provides that members of Congress “shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses.” Again, “the Session” appears to refer simply to when a House of Congress is actually meeting.

It would seem to follow most naturally from these references to “the Session” that the article “the” does not really have a limiting semantic function in these clauses. The D.C. Circuit’s obsession with “the” in the phrase, “the recess,” is just nonsense. “The Recess” should be understood in the same informal, functionally sensible way as we understand “the session.” That is, when Congress is assembled to do business, it is sitting in “the Session.” When the Senate is not around to do business, it is in “the Recess.”

It might be said that my interpretation of the Constitution licenses too much executive mischief. Presidents might construe the Senate’s lunch hour as a “recess.” Or they might withhold nominations until a Senate break in order to avoid advice and consent altogether. But, of course, as recent history has shown, Congress can work mischief of its own. The Senate can hold up patently qualified nominees interminably. Or a majority of the House of Representatives may disable the Senate from going into “the recess” for no reason other than to preserve the filibustering prerogatives of a Senate minority.  My reading of the Constitution does not create a judicially enforceable route around such mischief, but it does establish parity between the branches when it comes to the appointments process, which is appropriate for a checks and balances system.

As the Supreme Court has said over a century ago and repeatedly since, “the possible abuse of a power is not an argument against its existence.” The restraints on interbranch shenanigans are most powerfully the checks and balances built into the Constitution and the accountability of our political leaders to the electorate. It may be the province of the courts to say what the law is; it is not their province to cut bright-line rules from whole cloth that run counter to text, constitutional history and good sense.

The D.C. Circuit panel just blew it.  Deuce Bigelow anyone?

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Judicial Activism and Recess Appointments

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 25, 2013

On Wednesday, January 4, 2012, President Obama appointed three new members for the National Labor Relations Board.  He also named Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  To do so, he invoked his recess appointments power under Article II, Section 2, paragraph 3 of the Constitution.  This is the power “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.”

The majority Democrat Senate, in this case, had previously convened most recently on Tuesday, January 3, 2013 for a session that lasted 41 seconds.  These 41 seconds were devoted to two items.  The first was a reading by the Senate clerk of a letter from the Senate’s then-President Pro Tem, Senator Inouye.  The letter confirmed the appointment of Senator Mark Warner for the day to perform the duties of the Chair.  The second item was Senator Warner performing exactly one such duty.  Namely, he adjourned the Senate until its 29-second session on Friday, January 6.  Senators living close to D.C. had been performing these rituals at three-day intervals since December 20, 2011.  Their performances implemented a Senate order, adopted by unanimous consent on December 17, providing that the Senate would then adjourn but, until January 23, 2012, convene every three days for “pro forma sessions only, with no business conducted.”  The reason for this ritual was the decision of the majority Republican House of Representatives, under Article I, Section 5, Paragraph 4 of the Constitution to withhold its consent to a Senate adjournment of longer than three days.  The House Republicans were of the view that keeping the Senate on a three-day leash would prevent the President from making recess appointments and doing an end-run around the Senate Republicans’ filibusters.

For all the controversy surrounding these appointments, they were clearly constitutional if either of two things is true.  They were constitutional if, despite the pro forma sessions, the Senate was in recess from December 20 until January 23.  If that hiatus amounted to a “recess” for purposes of Article II, Section 2, then the President’s exercise of his appointment prerogative was permissible.  The appointments would also be constitutional, of course, if the three-day hiatus between January 3 and January 6 was a “recess” for constitutional purposes.  The President had plausible arguments either way.

On Friday, January 25, 2013, however, three GOP-appointed judges on the U.S. District of Columbia Circuit held the NLRB appointments unconstitutional.  The NLRB, the court found, had properly determined that the petitioner, Noel Canning, had committed an unfair labor practice.  However, the Board’s order could not be enforced because three of its members were appointed unconstitutionally and, without those members, the Board lacked a quorum.

This is not a slam dunk legal issue.  The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had issued a well-reasoned opinion asserting the permissibility of the appointments.  For his part, Charles J. Cooper, a former OLC head under President Reagan, provided a thoughtful rebuttal in testimony to the House Education and Workforce Committee.

What is striking, therefore, about the D.C. Circuit opinion is not its bottom line, but the scope of its reasoning.  Despite a pretense of constitutional modesty, the court decided the Recess Appointments issue — which the appellant had not raised to the NLRB itself — on the broadest possible ground. The court decided not that the Senate’s pro forma sessions prevented it from having a sufficiently long recess or even that its conceded three-day adjournment was too short to count as a recess. Instead, it held that recess appointments may occur only if the Senate is between sessions, for example, after it has adjourned for the first session of the 113th Congress, but before the 2nd session convenes.

Then, for good measure, two of three judges held the appointments impermissible because the NLRB seats did not actually become vacant during such an intersession recess. As they read the Constitution, unless an office actually becomes empty during a recess, it cannot be filled during a recess.  (As the third judge observes in a separate opinion, this second holding disregards about 190 years of contrary understanding by Congress and the Executive.)

Regarding a different body — a judicial appointment, in fact — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has squarely held that presidents may make recess appointments within sessions of the Senate, not just between them.  Because of the conflict now between two circuits, there seems little doubt that, if the Administration wants to bring the NLRB case to the Supreme Court, the Court will hear it.

The court’s key defense of its interpretation of “recess” to mean only a recess between sessions is that no other interpretation would provide the courts an easy-to-implement bright-line rule.  It is worth noting, however, that – like many bright-line rules – this one makes little sense.  As recounted by Senate associate historian Betty K. Koed (and quoted by reporter Al Kamen), “At high noon on Dec. 7 1903,” the Senate president pro tem brought down the gavel to end one session of the Senate and then immediately brought a second session to order.  “In that moment between sessions,” she wrote, “during that split-second of time it took . . . to wield the gavel, President Theodore Roosevelt made 193 recess appointments.”  These appointments would have satisfied the D.C. Circuit’s bright-line rule.

Conversely, should the 2013 Senate, within a single session, now leave town for three months with key executive branch positions unfilled, the President – according to the D.C. Circuit – may do nothing.  I dissent.

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OLC’s Skillful Defense of President Obama’s Recess Appointments and Its Possible Aftershocks

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 13, 2012

The Justice Department’s release of on Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion regarding President Obama’s recess appointments power is a welcome display of public accountability. However one analyzes the bottom line, the opinion is a model of the genre. It is thorough in its analysis, candid about points that are novel or untested, and serious about engaging what it acknowledges to be substantial counterarguments. This is evidence of an OLC that is doing its job.

For separation of powers aficionados, what ought to most interesting is the OLC opinion’s primary line of attack. I had earlier defended the President’s right to make recess appointments even during a three-day recess – an argument that, in a footnote, the OLC opinion holds in reserve. OLC’s main conclusion, however, is that the recent pro forma sessions were of no constitutional significance in interrupting what was effectively a 20-day recess. OLC thus followed earlier Attorney General Opinions that had judged the concept of “recess” functionally, by whether “in a practical sense the Senate is in session so that its advice and consent can be obtained.”

The OLC analysis is arguably the more institutionally modest position because it is better grounded in historical precedent. Its functional approach also resonates with Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit opinions dealing with a structurally similar question, namely, when does Congress “by their adjournment” prevent the President from returning a veto message, thus triggering the President’s power of “pocket veto” – i.e., the power to prevent an enacted measure from becoming law without an actual veto if, on the tenth day following the measure’s presentation to the President, Congress is not in session to receive the President’s message. In the 1938 case of Wright v. United States, the Supreme Court held that, even when the Senate was concededly in a three-day recess, it had not prevented the President from vetoing enacted bills because the Secretary of the Senate remained available to receive the veto message. The OLC opinion, like Wright and, even more conspicuously, Wright ‘s D.C. Circuit progeny, seeks a constitutional reading that most pragmatically facilitates the system of checks and balances by respecting the core powers of each political branch.

(Interestingly, Professor Laurence Tribe had earlier offered yet a different analysis — that the Constitution confers “an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes,” and that pro forma Senate sessions during what would otherwise appear to be a substantial recess could not defeat the President’s power when such sessions “manifestly” served no purpose other than to serve as a “transparently obstructionist tactic.”)

As much as I admire the restraint and thoughtfulness of the OLC opinion, however, I have only a limited hope that it will put a stop to interbranch game-playing. Perhaps the toughest point for OLC to counter was that, during two pro forma sessions – one last summer and one this winter – the Senate actually did pass legislation by unanimous consent, thus seeming to be “in business.” OLC’s counter to this was rather technical, namely, that the scheduling orders during which the pro forma sessions were held explicitly provided that there was to be “no business conducted.” “In our judgment,” the opinion states, “the President may properly rely on the public pronouncements of the Senate that it will not conduct business (including action on nominations), in determining whether the Senate remains in recess, regardless of whether the Senate has disregarded its own orders on prior occasions.”

That’s fair enough, but let’s imagine a few scenarios. What if, for example, the Republicans take the Senate in 2012, but President Obama is reelected? It seems quite likely that the pro forma ritual will continue, but with the Senate modifying its scheduling orders to make the possibility of doing business seem more plausible. Perhaps the pro forma sessions will occur daily, rather than every three days.

Or, imagine, as is less likely, that the Democrats retain the Senate but President Obama loses the White House. The Democrats, eager to prevent controversial nominees from getting recess appointments, could well try to prevent them the old-fashioned way – by actually scheduling floor action and voting them down. Will we then see Republicans using the filibuster to prevent such votes, not in the hope that the Senate will ever approve the nominees in question, but to keep the nominations alive and the vacancies open, so President Obama’s Republican successor may appoint them during a recess?

In our analyses of President Obama’s recent appointments, both Professor Tribe and I stressed that the appointments were limited to vacancies that, if they persisted, would prevent the agencies involved from actually executing the laws they were charged with enforcing. Of course, there is no guarantee that any successor to President Obama (or even President Obama himself on another occasion) will observe such restraint.

And, on top of all of this, the President seems to have his own textually explicit nuclear option. He is authorized by Article II to adjourn Congress unilaterally “to such time as he shall think proper.” If courts interpret the Recess Appointments Clause to require adjournments of, say, ten days or more in order to be triggered, there is no obvious bar in the text to the President adjourning Congress for ten days to accomplish precisely that end.

A British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, famously observed: “Every political constitution in which different bodies share the supreme power is only enabled to exist by the forbearance of those among whom this power is distributed.” Under our Constitution, of course, it is “the People” who hold the supreme power. But we have effectively delegated the exercise of government power to a set of partly autonomous, partly interdependent institutions to which we have allocated both authorities and dependencies in the hope of effective governance. Yet, “forbearance of those among whom . . . power is distributed” is not much in evidence these days. As much as I applaud the President’s recent actions and the skillful defense OLC has offered, I thus find it difficult not to worry about the aftershocks.

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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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