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Sorry, Boehner, The Senate Cannot Take Away Obama’s Recess Appointment Power By Pretending To Work

By Ian Millhiser  

"Sorry, Boehner, The Senate Cannot Take Away Obama’s Recess Appointment Power By Pretending To Work"

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As ThinkProgress predicted yesterday, congressional Republicans did not wait long to whine that President Obama’s wholly legal decision to recess appoint Richard Cordray is unconstitutional. According to a blog post written by Speaker John Boehner’s staff, the Cordray appointment is unconstitutional because Obama defied an imaginary time-limit on his recess power and failed to respect the Senate’s decision to pretend that it’s actually doing something:

President Obama today made an unprecedented “recess” appointment even though the Senate is not in recess – “a sharp departure from a long-standing precedent that has limited the President to recess appointments only when the Senate is in a recess of 10 days or longer,” according to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

It turns out that the action not only contradicts long-standing practice, but also the view of the administration itself. In 2010, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal explained to the Supreme Court the Obama administration’s view that recess appointments are only permissible when Congress is in recess for more than three days.

First of all, Boehner needs to learn to count. For constitutional purposes, the Senate has been in recess since December 23. Although a single senator has opened a pretend session that lasts about half a minute — what is known as a “pro forma” session — every three days since then, these pro forma sessions have no impact whatsoever on the president’s recess appointment’s power. As Steven Bradbury and John Elwood, two key constitutional advisors during the Bush Administration, explained in 2010:

Historically, the recess appointments clause has been given a practical interpretation. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 67, the clause enables the president to keep the government fully staffed when the Senate is not “in session for the appointment of officers.” . . . [A 1905 Senate report] cautioned that a “recess” means “something actual, not something fictitious.” The executive branch has long taken the same common-sense view. In 1921, citing opinions of his predecessors dating back to the Monroe administration, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty argued that the question “is whether in a practical sense the Senate is in session so that its advice and consent can be obtained. To give the word ‘recess’ a technical and not a practical construction, is to disregard substance for form.”

The Senate, of course, does not meet as a body during a pro forma session. By the terms of the recess order, no business can be conducted, and the Senate is not capable of acting on the president’s nominations. That means the Senate remains in “recess” for purposes of the recess appointment power, despite the empty formalities of the individual senators who wield the gavel in pro forma sessions.

Moreover, even if the Senate could stave off a recess by convening in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, it is simply not true that three days must pass before the president’s recess power kicks in. Though it’s true that Katyal once said that “I think our office has opined the recess has to be longer than 3 days,” an off-the-cuff comment by the Deputy Solicitor General does not have the power to change what the Constitution actually says. As the highest court to consider issue explained, “[t]he Constitution, on its face, does not establish a minimum time that an authorized break in the Senate must last to give legal force to the President’s appointment power under the Recess Appointments Clause.”

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