While much attention has focused on the Senate’s recent vote to eliminate the ability to filibuster judicial and executive nominations, another aspect of constitutonal separation of powers will come to the fore in January when the Supreme Court hears argument in NLRB v. Noel Canning.
The Recess Appointments Clause, which gives the president the power to “fill up Vacancies” in federal offices and judgeships that “may happen during the Recess of the Senate,” allows the president to fill vacancies without going through the normal requirements of obtaining the Senate’s “advice and consent.” The Framers understood that, particularly during the nation’s early days, the president and the rest of the executive branch would be the only members of the government in Washington for the entire year, so important offices may become vacant while the Senate was out of session. The Recess Appointments Clause would thus be an important but rarely used exception to the normal confirmation process.
For nearly 200 years, however, presidents have been whittling down the clause’s requirements. For the first three decades of the Constitution, the clause was interpreted to apply only to vacancies that occurred during a recess—perhaps because a cabinet member died—and didn’t apply at all to vacancies that existed while the Senate was in session. During the Monroe administration, the attorney general first authorized appointments to offices that were vacant during the previous recess.