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Recess appointments debate complete

On January 23, Jason Mazzone, Gerald Baylin Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and Andrew M. Grossman, visiting legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and litigator at Baker & Hostetler, debated the constitutionality of President Obama's invocation of executive recess appointment authority to appoint the first director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and three new members of the National Labor Relations Board.

Professor Mazzone articulated a unique national-security argument in defense of the President's recent use of the Recess Appointments Clause, stating:

The Constitution is a document for times of war as well as times of peace. Many of the Constitution's provisions are explicitly directed at matters of national security; many other provisions serve a security function. The President's "Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate" is a power that plays an important national security role by ensuring that even in times of war or other national crises high-level governmental offices remain staffed and functional. The power is located in section 2 of Article II of the Constitution, along with other presidential powers (to act as Commander in Chief, to make Treaties, to appoint Ambassadors, public Ministers and Consuls) that secure the nation. Early interpreters of the power emphasized its security role. For example, in 1823, Attorney General William Wirt, invoking military analogies, explained that were the President dependent upon the resumption of the Senate, a vacancy could "paralyze a whole line of action in some essential branch of our internal police."

Allowing the Senate to block presidential use of the appointment power with pro-forma sessions (the equivalent of an "In Session" sign on the door of a vacant chamber) would have grave security implications. In assessing President Obama's recent use of the power, we should ask about the scenario that is at the heart of the Recess Appointments Clause.

Mr. Grossman was not convinced by the national-security-interests justification, citing other constitutional remedies available to the president and predicting likely congressional cooperation in response to an emergency national security scenario. Mr. Grossman responded:

...Isn't the obvious answer either that (1) Congress would vote to recess immediately so the President could do what needs to be done or (2) the Senate would stream back to Washington to confirm the President's nominees so quickly they'd get whiplash?

It's silly to assume that it would be otherwise, but it's even sillier to use that mistaken assumption to justify putting a thumb on the scale of constitutional interpretation, where the President gets to override all because, well, one day his political opponents would block him from doing very important things. Congress could hobble our national security just as well--if not better!--by denying appropriations for defense, deauthorizing the national security programs, and even sending home the troops. Defunding might only take half of the House or a third of the Senate, while the others might require a two-thirds vote to override the inevitable veto. But if you've got two-thirds on your side, why not go ahead and impeach the President?

The full-length debate introduced a number of new approaches and interpretations of the Recess Appointments Clause while also discussing the points articulated by scholars in response to President Obama's exercise of authority under that clause. Let us know who you feel got the better of the exchange via Twitter @pointoflaw.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.