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Legitimacy of Cordray confirmation under the microscope

On December 8, 2011, after Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation of Richard Cordray, former Ohio attorney general nominated to serve as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama vowed that his administration would not give up on the appointment. On Wednesday, the President followed through on his pledge with a recess appointment of Cordray, officially expanding the authority of the CFPB over non-bank institutions/lenders that can offer loans to consumers.

While there was an expected partisan response to the President's strategy from both sides of the aisle, a serious and legitimate legal issue was identified by constitutional scholars. The issue is whether the President has the authority to make recess appointments while the Senate is hosting "pro forma" sessions for the purpose of blocking those appointments.

The White House argues that the President does indeed have such authority:

The Constitution gives the President the authority to make temporary recess appointments to fill vacant positions when the Senate is in recess, a power all recent Presidents have exercised. The Senate has effectively been in recess for weeks, and is expected to remain in recess for weeks. In an overt attempt to prevent the President from exercising his authority during this period, Republican Senators insisted on using a gimmick called "pro forma" sessions, which are sessions during which no Senate business is conducted and instead one or two Senators simply gavel in and out of session in a matter of seconds. But gimmicks do not override the President's constitutional authority to make appointments to keep the government running. Legal experts agree. In fact, the lawyers who advised President Bush on recess appointments wrote that the Senate cannot use sham "pro forma" sessions to prevent the President from exercising a constitutional power.

In response, Andrew Grossman, visiting legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and litigator at Baker & Hostetler, points to contradictions that could occur as a result of executive authority in deciding whether the Senate is functionally in session or not.

...on December 17, the Senate agreed to an order instituting "pro forma" sessions, of the kind the President now claims are actually recess. (See the PDF of the Congressional Record here.) But it was at one of those sessions, on December 23, that the Senate passed the payroll tax cut extension that the President signed into law later that day. (Again, see the Congressional Record entry.)

Of course, if the Senate was actually on recess that day, it couldn't have passed the bill, and the President couldn't have signed it into law. (The President has not claimed--at least, not yet--that he can enact laws that have not passed Congress.) But in that case, the President chose to respect the Senate's own view as to whether it was open for business.

As Andrew also notes, the Constitution vests the Senate with the express authority to "determine the rules of its proceedings."

Professor Richard Epstein and Professor John Yoo both identify the danger in the recognition of executive authority to determine whether the Senate is in session. Professor Epstein then articulates a strong textual argument in the interpretation of Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution concluding that Cordray's confirmation does not fall within the scope of the President's recess appointment authority. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce echoed that sentiment in their sharp admonition of the President's recess appointment calling it "unprecedented, constitutionally questionable, and puts the authority of the director and the validity of the bureau's work in legal jeopardy."

Among the many viewpoints expressed, we can probably all agree that this appointment is not likely to go unchallenged.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.