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Recess Appointments: Who Decides?

January 25, 2012 8:15 AM

Jason Mazzone
Gerald Baylin Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School

I appreciate Andrew Grossman's thoughtful comments on my remarks on Recess Appointments and National Security. Yet I searched those comments in vain for a plausible solution to the problem I raised: unless the President can make use of the Recess Appointments Clause, the pro-forma Senate, in which Senators are dispersed and no business is conducted, will leave the country unable to respond effectively to security problems or other national crises.

The sole specific suggestion that Andrew (if I may) offers is a pocket-veto-like scenario, with no basis in the text of the Constitution, in which the Senate would transmit appropriate messages to the President. In other words, rather than expeditiously appoint the people to distribute the gasmasks, the iodine pills, and the vaccines, the President should wait for the Senate to send word that when it said it was in pro-forma session it was only kidding. This is not a basis on which the Republic is secured.

In place of confronting the security origins of the Recess Appointments Clause and the security implications of his vision of a permanently-in-session Senate, Andrew returns the interpretive task to ordinary politics. His Constitution is one for the vast bureaucratic state in which constitutional interpretation should focus on the selection and control of peacetime functionaries. My Constitution is one that begins instead with the first duty of government, security. For without well-functioning mechanisms to ensure the security of the state and of the people, there is little point talking about which bureaucrat will head the CFPB or serve on the NLRB.

Andrew's peacetime Recess Clause is a dangerous creature for another reason. The failure to take account of security concerns risks generating constitutional rules and theories that are impractical when emergencies do arise, lending unintended legitimacy to government officials who ask to suspend normal constitutional constraints in response to security risks.

Andrew asks two questions. The first, whether the President's power is limited to vacancies that arise during a recess, is one many others have discussed and I will leave for another day. The second, in which Andrew proposes his own hypothetical security scenario, leads me to a broader issue, one that has received less attention and with which it is useful to end.

Given that there are plausible arguments on both sides about the constitutionality of recess appointments during pro-forma sessions, we are left with a puzzle: who decides whether the Senate was in fact in session? Andrew's arguments assign that decision at various points to the Senate, the House, the courts, and even--with Andrew's invocation of the payroll tax cut extension--President Obama himself. (I suspect the last of these is accidental.)

In instances such as the recent events on which this debate is focused, I would defer to the President on the question of whether the Senate is in session. The reason is simple. While government officials deciding upon the scope of their own powers present some obvious dangers, the Recess Appointments Clause contains its own check on executive abuses: commissions that the President grants pursuant to his recess power expire at the end of the next senatorial session. The Clause therefore protects to a large degree the interests of the Senate.

There is a further lesson. The expiration date underscores the temporary, emergency nature of the Recess Appointments Clause. This, as I have urged, is the essential feature that any account of the President's recess power must confront.




Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.