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Recess Appointments

James R. Copland

On January 4, President Obama invoked executive recess appointment authority to place former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray as the first director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as to place three new members of the National Labor Relations Board. Senate Republicans had previously refused to permit a confirmation vote on Cordray and one of the president's NLRB appointments.

The president's action was controversial because the Senate was technically not in recess -- having held "pro forma" sessions that appeared to prevent the President from exercising his constitutional recess appointment authority. White House lawyers advised the president that he had the constitutional authority to make recess appointments while the Senate is hosting "pro forma" sessions only for the purpose of blocking those appointments. The Department of Justice defended the legal authority of the President in a memorandum.

Various legal scholars in turn reacted to the president's action: Professors John Yoo and Laurence Tribe, on opposite sides of the issue, examined the scope of executive authority and congressional authority under a separation of powers framework; and Professor Richard Epstein looked to the text of the Recess Appointment Clause and challenged not just President Obama's appointments but the current practice of recess appointments more broadly.

This week on Point of Law, we are fortunate enough to host a lively back-and-forth discussion with 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. Mr. Mazzone and Mr. Grossman will explore the constitutionality of the president's controversial recess appointments, exploring legal arguments that have been advanced in the debate and others not yet expressed. The featured discussion will be available below; please check back throughout the week as the discussion continues.

Recess Appointments and National Security

January 23, 2012 12:17 PM

Jason Mazzone
Gerald Baylin Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School

Earlier this month, President Obama, invoking his power to make recess appointments, named Richard Cordray director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and added three members to the National Labor Relations Board. Critics contend that these appointments were unconstitutional because the Senate was not in recess: although virtually all Senators were out of town and no business was being conducted, the chamber was kept open through pro-forma sessions.

I am no fan of recess appointments particularly when, as here, they are used to put into office nominees the Senate has had before it but has refused to advance to a vote. Nonetheless, the President was on solid constitutional ground when he determined that not withstanding the pro-forma sessions, he could make use of his appointment power. To see why requires shifting the focus from the CFPB and the NLRB and onto the bigger stakes.

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.

Consider this: While most Senators are in their home states, terrorists attack Washington, DC, with a dirty bomb. Cabinet officials and heads of federal agencies charged with the response effort are killed. A lone Senator bangs the gavel in an otherwise empty chamber and calls the body into pro-forma session. It would be foolish to say that the Senate has not recessed and thus the Constitution prohibits the President from replacing dead and wounded federal officers.

To be sure, the security of the nation does not depend upon staffing the CFPB and the NLRB. But the President's recess appointment power extends to filling "all Vacancies." And, as with other constitutional provisions, it is a mistake, and a danger, to measure that power by judging its perceived necessity in times of peace.

Andrew M. Grossman
Heritage Foundation Visiting Legal Fellow

Professor Mazzone's clever argument that, due to national-security interests, the President has the power to decree that Congress is in recess and make such appointments as he wishes explains too much, but unfortunately not the two things that matter: the constitutional text and structure.

Let's start with the text. Article II, section 2, provides that the President "shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States." The subsequent clause provides that 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." Yes, as Prof. Mazzone observes, these provisions in the same section as clause declaring the President "commander in chief"; for what it's worth, so are the provisions authorizing the President to seek written opinions of his cabinet and to "grant reprieves and pardons." Proximity only proves so much.

The challenge of interpreting the Constitution's "odd clauses" is to give them meaning consistent with text and history, without rendering any a nullity. Prof. Mazzone, as well as the Obama Administration, run aground on a few well-marked shoals:

First, let's start with the big-picture view: if Congress can pass a bill, it must be in session. Congress did, in fact, pass a bill during one of the "pro-forma sessions" that the President now claims may actually be a recess. But guess who signed that bill into law . . . . (And once before, in August.) For purposes of passing legislation that he supported, the President accepted pro-forma sessions as what they purport to be: active sessions. Either that, or he simply deferred to Congress's view on the matter.

Second is the requirement in Article I that neither chamber shall, "without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days." The House craftily wielded this provision to deny the Senate permission to adjourn. But the President's action, if upheld, would render it a nullity--the Senate could adjourn whenever it likes. Up until now, pro-forma sessions had always been considered sufficient to satisfy this requirement, as well as to satisfy the Twentieth Amendment's mandate that Congress assemble each year on January 3.

Third is the inconvenient case of the "pocket veto." Although a bill passed by Congress but not signed by the President becomes law "within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him," that same bill is regarded as vetoed when "the Congress by their adjournment prevent its return." Does a pro-forma session prevent a President from exercising a pocket veto? Yes, most certainly, so long as Congress made arrangements to receive messages from the President. (Wouldn't a parallel requirement go a long way toward satisfying Prof. Mazzone's national-security concerns?)

Fourth, what about Congress's power to "determine the rules of its proceedings"? Typically, the other branches honor its determinations and judgments as to its own actions. For example, when Congress certifies that a particular bill has been enrolled, the courts will presume that Congress observed the requisite procedures in passing it. To be sure, this power isn't absolute--Congress couldn't, for example, originate a tax bill in the Senate--but this is not a circumstance where Congress attempts to act in a manner plainly opposed to constitutional mandate.

Prof. Mazzone's suggestion that the Recess Appointments Clause must be construed broadly in light of the President's responsibility for national security does not answer these points. Nor does it account for the existence of that provision of Article II, section 3, which provides that the President may adjourn the House and Senate "to such time as he shall think proper"--a power that no President has exercised due to its enormous political costs outside the unusual type of crisis context that Prof. Mazzone conjures up. (Then again, others differ in their evaluation of the political costs.)

But let me conclude with two questions for Prof. Mazzone. First, is your reading of the Recess Appointments Clause limited, as some say the text requires and as your rationale would seem to imply, to vacancies that arise during a recess? And second, let's modify the hypothetical: the terrorists attack when every single member of Congress is in town, but partisan discord is such that the Senate, meeting six days each week, is unable to confirm a single nominee over a period of months. In that case, can the President cite national-security needs and make a recess appointment late on a Saturday night, when not even the C-Span cameras are stirring? And please no cop-outs that it's non-justiciable, because I don't buy it.

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.

If the Professor insists...

January 26, 2012 8:25 AM

Andrew M. Grossman
Heritage Foundation Visiting Legal Fellow

The Constitution is the operating manual for a political machine, a federal government. Why, then, should we be surprised when the answer to some really hard question is to let politics run its course?

I'd say we shouldn't, because the Constitution leaves most things to politics, and that's true for Prof. Mazzone's insistent hypothetical. To recapitulate: Congress is out of town, terrorists kill the federal officials who would have led our response to a terror attack, and the Senate is holding pro-forma sessions to block nominations. Whatever does the President do?

To Prof. Mazzone, this conundrum proves that the President can declare that Congress is out of session--no matter what Congress thinks of the matter--and make whatever appointments he wants.

Well, I offered one out to Prof. Mazzone, but he didn't bite. Article II provides that, if the two chambers of Congress can't agree on when to adjourn--as happened in December and this month--the President can "adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper." Doesn't this power directly answer Prof. Mazzone's hypo? (Let's put aside, for the moment the question of whether an "adjournment appointment" is just as good as a "recess appointment.") The only problem is the President would have to accept the political cost, but he has no constitutional right to avoid that.

But let's tweak the hypo a bit. Maybe the House and Senate are politically aligned against the President, so there's no disagreement on adjournment. Or let's say the Supreme Court ruled just last week that "recess appointments" can't be made during adjournments (i.e., within sessions) but only during recesses (between sessions). We're doomed, right?

I wouldn't see why. 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?

So if I understand Prof. Mazzone's "commander-in-chief canon" of construction correctly, this means that, notwithstanding the text of the Constitution, the President gets to make appropriations (remarkably, President Obama toyed with the idea of claiming this power to himself, albeit for very important reasons other than national security), authorize federal activities, muster an army and a navy, and ignore his own impeachment--all because Congress otherwise might prevent him, one day, from responding to a terrorist attack.

One plus is that this canon is really easy to apply--much easier than trying to unravel original meaning!--but it also transforms our federal government into precisely what it was not meant to be: a monarchy.

Of course, I don't really think that's what Prof. Mazzone was getting at. But the point is that he isn't applying a workable neutral principle of constitutional interpretation.

So I will: interpret the constitutional text as it was originally understood, with an eye to structure and purpose. In this view, there's no real indication that the Recess Appointments Clause was intended at all as a means for the President to check Congress's power but was just a gap-filler, an answer to the question of how the President might make an appointment when Congress was gone for months on end. This was a specific and narrow exception to the general rule that the Senate gets to vote on the President's nominees.

This doesn't mean that the President is powerless to act in times of emergency and senatorial intransigence. He has an extremely powerful check over the Senate: a political check. That, in some instance, the President may not wish to spend his political capital on getting his nominees confirmed is no good reason to turn the constitution on its head.






Obamacare Decision: Reactions, July 2012
Law School Faculty Diversity, May-June 2012
Class Actions, May 2012
Constitutionality of Individual Mandate, March 2012
Human Rights and International Law, February-March 2012
The constitutionality of President Obama's recess appointments, January 2012
Do caps on medical malpractice damages hurt consumers?, December 2011
Trial Lawyers Inc.: State Attorneys General, October 2011
Wal-Mart v. Dukes, April 2011
Kagan Supreme Court nomination, May-June 2010
Election roundtable, November-December 2006
Who's the boss, September 2006
Medical judgement, July 2006
Lawyer Licensing, May 2006
Contingent claims, April 2006
Smoking guns, July 2004

Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.