Tag: recess appointments

Unanimous Supreme Court Slaps Down President Obama on Recess Appointments, Should’ve Gone Further

For the 12th time since January 2012, the Obama Justice Department has lost unanimously at the Supreme Court. This time it was over recess appointments, with all justices agreeing with that the Senate gets to determine when it’s not in session – which triggers the president’s power to appoint federal officials without Senate confirmation. (Indeed, that’s what we argued in the brief we filed). And that’s no surprise: based on oral argument, everyone was expecting the government to lose NLRB v. Noel Canning and lose big. For example, my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz predicted a unanimous ruling at a Cato debate in January.

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom about a narrow ruling was also proven correct. The only “rule” that emerges from Justice Breyer’s controlling opinion is that a three-day recess, the longest the Senate can adjourn without the House’s consent, isn’t long enough to enable recess appointments. That’s a very pragmatic decision and seems to confirm executive practice prior to recent years. It also happens to lack any connection to constitutional text (as Justice Scalia points out for four justices in concurrence), whose best reading indicates that only recesses between Senate sessions – not when, e.g., the Senate takes two weeks off around Christmas – count for purposes of activating the recess-appointment power. Moreover, that power is only textually justified to fill vacancies that arise during the recess itself, not for openings that the president didn’t happen to fill while the Senate was sitting. In other words, Justice Breyer’s unprincipled opinion, while limiting recent presidential practice, cements a much more expansive reading of that power than the Constitution allows. For practical purposes, we’ll see many more “pro forma” Senate sessions and also the empowerment of those who control the House – because, again, the Senate can’t recess without the House’s consent. Speaker Boehner, call your office.

To be sure, this ruling is a strong rebuke to this administration in this case, but the most that can be said for it more broadly is what Justice Scalia did in reading his concurrence from the bench this morning: “The Court’s decision will be cited in diverse contexts, including those presently unimagined, and will have the effect of aggrandizing the Presidency beyond its constitutional bounds and undermining respect for the separation of powers.”

Government Will Lose Recess Appointments Case

This morning’s oral argument couldn’t have gone any better for those challenging President Obama’s recess appointments (see previous commentary and Cato’s brief for background on NLRB v. Noel Canning). Not only were Justices Scalia and Alito sticklers for constitutional text and structure, but the more liberal justices joined in to express extreme skepticism about the government’s theories. Justice Kagan pointed out that modern presidents don’t face congressional absences—the reason for the president’s power to appoint federal officials without the Senate’s “advice and consent”—but merely congressional “intransigence.” And the Recess Appointments Clause doesn’t exist to solve those kinds of political problems, noted Justice Breyer. Justice Breyer also pointed out that, if you follow the government’s argument that so-called “pro forma” Senate sessions don’t count, then the Senate repeatedly violates the Constitution by not having a “actual” sessions on January 3 (as the 20th Amendment requires) and by recessing for more than three days without the House’s consent (as Article I, Section 5 requires).

Solicitor General Verrilli’s suggestion that the Senate has to be engaging in business to deny the president the recess-appointments power didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. As Justice Kagan put it, any such test can be easily evaded by a clever Senate (that could name post offices by unanimous consent, for example, or, in Chief Justice Roberts’s example, note in the Senate Journal for “pro forma” sessions that “no business is anticipated to be [rather than will be] conducted”). Justice Kennedy said that he was “in search of a limiting principle” to the government’s position—so as not to simply give the president sole discretion to determine when the Senate is or isn’t in recess. Justice Kagan was left asking both sides how the Court should rule given that the presidential practice—whose history prior to the Truman administration the parties dispute—seemed to so clearly contradict the constitutional text and structure.

And indeed that is the question: If it’s true, as an overwhelming majority of the justices seemed to think, that the president was only supposed to have the power to make recess appointments during intersession recesses, and only for vacancies that arose during such recesses, what does it mean that this correct interpretation has never been followed? The challengers had several ready answers: (1) The Court hasn’t hesitated to make significant rulings upsetting existing practice based on separation-of-powers concerns (for example regarding the authority of criminal sentencing guidelines); (2) Past nominations won’t be unduly disturbed because of various finality rules, statutes of limitation, and agencies’ ability to ratify past decisions; (3) Given the changed modern context, with Congress in session for much longer periods and senators able to fly back to Washington on a moment’s notice, recess appointments are less important; and (4) Regardless of the correct interpretation of the recess-appointments power, it is the Senate that gets to determine when it’s in session or in recess, not the president.

While it’s unclear how exactly the Supreme Court will write its opinion in this case and where its focus will lie, it’ll be a real shock if the government wins this case. The justices recognized that the battle over executive and judicial nominations is a political one and that in cases of impasse, the Framers designed a system encouraging either political compromise or a final decision by the voters—not endless constitutional brinksmanship.

Obama versus the Constitution

Those engaged in my line of work – explaining and defending the Constitution, the most liberty-friendly system of governance yet devised – have been kept busy by the current occupant of the White House and the executive agencies he controls. President Obama’s signature health care legislation alone provides endless “teachable moments” regarding our founding document. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, the more we find out about Obamacare and its implementation, the more constitutional violations we find.

But if Obamacare is the biggest constitutional – let alone policy – disaster that Barack Obama has inflicted on the nation, it alas is far from the only one. As I put it in a new Forbes.com op-ed:

One of Barack Obama’s chief accomplishments has been to return the Constitution to a central place in our public discourse.

Unfortunately, the president fomented this upswing in civic interest not by talking up the constitutional aspects of his policy agenda, but by blatantly violating the strictures of our founding document. And he’s been most frustrated with the separation of powers, which doesn’t allow him to “fundamentally transform” the country without congressional acquiescence.

But that hasn’t stopped him. In its first term, the administration launched a “We Can’t Wait” initiative, with senior aide Dan Pfeiffer explaining that “when Congress won’t act, this president will.” And earlier this year, President Obama said in announcing his new economic plans that “I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way.”

And so, as we reach the end of another year of political strife that’s fundamentally based on clashing views on the role of government in society, I thought I’d update a list I made two years ago and hereby present President Obama’s top 10 constitutional violations of 2013.

Here’s the list (only half of which is Obamacare-related):

  1. Delay of Obamacare’s out-of-pocket caps. 
  2. Delay of Obamacare’s employer mandate.
  3. Delay of Obamacare’s insurance requirements.
  4. Exemption of Congress from Obamacare. 
  5. Expansion of the employer mandate penalty through IRS regulation.
  6. Political profiling by the IRS.
  7. Outlandish Supreme Court arguments. 
  8. Recess appointments. 
  9. Assault on free speech and due process on college campuses.
  10. Mini-DREAM Act.

For more details, read the whole thing. Of course, there are still two days left in the year, so who knows what else may be in store.

 

President Obama Can’t Dictate Senate Rules

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.