Tag Archive: Recess Appointments

Jan 11 2012

Congressional Game of Chicken: Recess Appointment A Dilemma

President Obama’s recent exercise of his constitutional authority to make recess appointments to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and filling vacancies the National Labor Relations Board has created some dilemmas for himself and congressional Republicans. Republicans, of course, will continue to block confirmation of any Presidential appointee but are split as to how to address President Obama’s dismissal of the sham “pro forma” sessions and his four recess appointments.

With the appointment of Jack Lew as Chief of Staff, there is now a vacancy to head the Office of Budget and Management but the bigger issue may be the vacancy for a new director to the Federal Housing Finance Administration. That institution has been without a confirmed director for over two years, since David Lockhart left. The president is being pressured by the House Congressional Delegation from California to replace the Republican acting director of the FHFA, Ed DeMarco, who they say has been obstructing efforts to stem the housing market collapse and help keep owners in their homes. David Dayen at FDL News Desk reports that he is of two minds on DeMarco:

(DeMarco) has interpreted his mandate very narrowly. It’s a bad thing when he refuses to engage in principal reductions for troubled borrowers, even though that would make more money for Fannie and Freddie in the long run, because he doesn’t want to take the short-term financing hit. But it’s a good thing when he sues 17 banks over misrepresentations of the mortgages in the securities they sold to Fannie and Freddie, with the hope of forcing repurchases of those mortgage pools.

There have been signs that DeMarco is warming to a more activist stance. He agreed to the changes to HARP, which is more of a stimulus program than a program that will save homes, but which will allow expanded refinancing come March of this year on GSE-owned properties. Freddie Mac just initiated a program for a 12-month forbearance (where the borrower can skip payments) for unemployed borrowers, although Democrats maintain that not everyone eligible will receive that forbearance.

Most promisingly, DeMarco is considering a principal pay-down program put forward by a California Democrat, Zoe Lofgren, that would allow underwater homeowners with GSE loans to have their mortgage payments go entirely to equity for five years, waiving the interest payments. DeMarco said he would look into the idea back in October, and there have been leaks since then suggesting that principal pay-down would happen. However, there has been no final word, and officially FHFA “continues to evaluate” the Lofgren proposal, even though in a meeting with House Dems they promised an assessment within two weeks.

Meanwhile those poor Republican obstructionists have a headache, as Brian Buetler at TPMDC reports:

Scores of House Republicans have signed on to a non-binding resolution disapproving of Obama’s four winter recess appointments – Cordray, and three members of the National Labor Relations Board – all fodder for conservatives, who are furious about the existence of these agencies, let alone the recess appointments themselves.

“It’s astounding to me that the president is claiming these are recess appointments and within his authority, when Congress was not in fact in recess,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) who authored the resolution. “These appointments are an affront to the Constitution. No matter how you look at this, it doesn’t pass the smell test. I hope the House considers my resolution as soon as we return to Washington so we can send a message to President Obama.”

This creates an election-year dilemma for GOP leaders who may not want to make a big show of their opposition to the one person in Washington tasked with protecting consumers from predatory financial actors.

But with so many key vacancies, President Obama has his own dilemma headache, not just to make more recess appointments but how to do it:

[T]he breaks between the last week in January and the first week in August will be very brief ones. Which means that if Obama declines to use his recess appointment power in the next several days, he’ll have three options, none ideal: He can fight it out with Congress and push for regular confirmations; he can wait until August, when Congress goes home for over a month; or he can broaden the parameters of his own precedent, and use the recess appointment during brief one-week vacations between now and then.

Republicans will likely keep holding pro forma sessions during those breaks, challenging Obama to take things further than he already has. [..]

As far as the Constitution and the Senate rules are concerned, there wouldn’t be much difference between a recess appointment in, say, April, and the recess appointments he announced last week. But their public rationale for the January appointments wouldn’t really stand in April. And after attacking President Obama’s supposed power grab, Republicans would slip the precedent in their back pocket, to be deployed when they control the White House.

We shall see if the president has finally abandoned all hope of getting any bipartisan cooperation from the Republicans.

Jan 04 2012

Congressional Game of Chicken: More Recess Appointments

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post reports:

Obama is set to appoint Sharon Block, Terence Flynn, and Richard Grifin to the board – something unions have made a big priority for them in the new year. Senate Republicans have opposed the recess appointments to the NLRB on constitutional grounds, but unions charge that Republicans are only interested in rendering the agency inoperative.

Obama’s move, which will help energize unions in advance of the 2012 election, is yet another sign that he is determined to circumvent GOP opposition and make government functional again by any means necessary. It’s another sign that the White House and Dems have abanoned the illusion that anything can be done to secure bipartisan compromise with Republicans on the major items on Obama’s agenda.

From Think Progress:

All 47 Senate Republicans have warned Obama of a “constitutional conflict” should he choose to use his recess appointment powers – authority he is well within his right to use, as ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser noted yesterday – but it was Chief Justice John Roberts, a noted conservative, who said the president should make recess appointments to keep the NLRB functioning, as ThinkProgress reported in 2010.

Obama’s appointment of Block, Flynn, and Griffin is important, too, because it boosts the board’s membership to five, protecting its quorum even if member Brian Hayes follows through on his threats to quit. Preserving its right to quorum ensures that its rulings will not be thrown out on legal challenges, as more than 600 cases were by the Roberts Court in 2010.

Jan 04 2012

Congressional Game of Chicken: Obama Ends The Farce

It was announced by the White House that President Barack Obama will make a recess appointment of former Attorney General of Ohio, Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB):

President Barack Obama installed Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with a recess appointment today, testing the limits of his executive authority to fill the post without Senate approval.

Obama nominated Cordray to be the bureau’s first director in July, almost one year after enactment of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law creating the agency. Republicans blocked Cordray’s confirmation by the Senate last month. Putting him in the job today may set up an election-year court fight between the White House and Congress.

Even thought the Senate has been under Democratic control since 2006 when the tactic of pro forma session was first employed to keep President George W. Bush from making recess appointments to the bench, there have been questions by legal scholars about the constitutionality about their use. It has since been used to placate the Republicans in hopes of winning their cooperation, obviously to no avail.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called President Obama move “arrogant”, saying that “Breaking from this precedent lands this appointee in uncertain legal territory, threatens the confirmation process and fundamentally endangers the Congress’s role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch.”

House Speaker John Boehner had a similar reaction calling the appointment an “extraordinary and entirely unprecedented power grab” by the president.

The legal precedent for these sessions is on very shaky ground. In a 1993 court case involving the Postal Service Board of Governors, Justice Department lawyers argued in court papers that presidents can make recess appointments when the Senate is out of session for more than three days.

The brief suggested that a president might lack that authority during shorter breaks. Pointing to the constitutional requirement that the Senate and House get one another’s consent before adjourning for more than three days, the Justice Department said the constitutional framers might not have considered shorter recesses to be significant.

“If the recess here were of three days or less, a closer question would be presented,” the Justice Department argued.

However, lawyers who advised President George W. Bush on recess appointments wrote that the Senate “cannot use sham ‘pro forma’ sessions to prevent the president from exercising a constitutional power.”

David Dayen at FDL points out the Constitutional argument that there is no time requirement in the Constitution for Congress to be in recess before the president can make recess appointments:

As for the judicial question on whether pro forma sessions count as keeping Congress in session, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled back in 2007 that “The 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.” On the other side of this, Solicitor General Neal Katyal, in a 2010 case, argued that the Administration recognized that a 3-day recess was “too small,” in their understanding, to make appointments.

While the Republicans will very likely mount a court challenge, claiming past precedent, it may well fail since the president has the power to make recess appointments under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution which states, “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.” It can be argued that Congress is in recess when they gavel out at the end of each day or whenever there is no quorum, which goes to the constitutional argument about pro forma sessions.

The other issue is why didn’t he appoint Elizabeth Warren who is eminently more qualified than Cordray to head the CFPB? It is most likely because of objections from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s objections and her memo to the the state attorney general’s who are negotiating a settlement with the big banks over mortgage fraud.

Make no mistake, Obama is doing this now for purely political motivations. It emphases Republican obstructionism and as a ploy to win back the disenfranchised left wing of the Democratic Party, as well as, the Independent voters who believed in all his “hopey, changey” campaign rhetoric.

Jan 03 2012

Congressional Game of Chicken: Presidential Recess Appointments Opportunity Missed

The pro forma congressional session that are being used to prevent President Obama from making recess appointments has been much discussed here and at other sites like FireDogLake and Talking Points Memo. It has also been argued by Constitutional scholars that they are little more “than a game of separation-of-powers chicken”. They have been used to keep the president from filling vacancies in the courts and in his administration that are vital to the operation of the government. These sessions and the president’s reluctance to challenge their constitutional legality has kept Elizabeth Warren from being appointed to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a Nobel winning economist, Richard Diamond from a seat on the Federal Reserve.

Once a the president missed an opportunity to put an end to Republican obstruction and make important appointments, like Richard Cordray to the CFPB and the vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. President Obama has a number of options available under the Constitution to bypass congress and make these appointments, as  David Dayen at FDL News Deskpoint out:

During the recess, the President has a number of opportunities to make recess appointments. He could simply determine that the pro forma sessions being used to keep Congress active were insufficient to prevent recess appointments. He could use his Constitutional power to adjourn Congress. But both of those would fly in the face of recent precedent (Presidents have generally respected the pro forma process, and no President has actually used the adjournment power.)

The one option with Presidential precedent behind it was the “Roosevelt precedent.” Congress simply has to adjourn for a short period, a split second really, to shift from the first session of the 112th Congress to the second session. In that window, Theodore Roosevelt made hundreds of recess appointments previously.

Victor Williams, Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of America School of Law and an attorney, writing in the Huffington Post last week urged Obama to put an end to the “myth” that an official congressional recess lasts three days or more and the Republicans’ de facto “nullification” of government:

As the 112th Senate left for its break, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unsuccessfully attempted to wrangle a recess concession from Obama. McConnell demanded that Obama promise not to sign any recess commissions during the holidays. McConnell blocked a confirmation vote for 50 officials when Obama ignored the Article II, Section 2 shake down.

Adding insult to constitutional injury, congressional Republicans again manipulated the Senate into scheduling 10 pro-forma sessions — intending to interfere with Obama’s recess appointment authority. (As I argued in recent Jurist commentary, in prior posts, and a National Law Journal opinion, the sessions do not prevent the Executive from signing recess commissions.)

Prof. Williams goes on, laying out all the president’s options urging him that the better option would be to invoke Article II, Section 2 which states, “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,” after the start of the new session of the 112th Congress which began today at 12:01 PM EST:

Recess commissions signed before the end of the 112th Senate’s first session — Jan. 3, 2012 at 12 p.m. — last through 2012. However, recess commissions better-timed to be signed instantly at noon (or anytime after the second session formally begins) last through 2013. The officials could then be re-recess appointed during Obama’s second term.

In a time and place of his choosing, Barack Obama should use the Article II, Section 2 recess appointment alternative. President Obama should concurrently renounce the three day recess myth underlying Senate pro forma sessions announcing a simple test: If the Senate is not sitting as a deliberative body able to provide timely confirmation consent, the Executive may fill any vacant federal office.

But according to Brian Buetler at TPM, legal experts believe that today was the last opportunity for Obama to use the “Roosevelt precedent”:

Today was the day that legal experts and many aides in both parties thought President Obama would provide a recess appointment to Richard Cordray, his nominee to administer the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau […]

But a senior administration official who would not be quoted told reporters at a White House background briefing Tuesday that Obama will not take advantage of that opening.

The official declined to provide further explanation, but the decision implies one of three things: that Obama does not believe he’s encumbered by technical restrictions on his power to recess appoint nominees and can still act between now and late January when Senators return to town; that he will instead wait until a future recess when feels he has more running room and political capital to recess appoint Cordray and others; or that he has no intention of challenging Congressional Republicans by making further recess appointments between now and the end of this Congress.

So by not taking advantage of the ‘Roosevelt precedent”, will Obama go where no president has gone before and invoke Article II, Section 2? Or will he continue on the more predictable path of allowing the minority in the Senate to obstruct his agenda?

I’m opting for the latter. Fool me, Barry.

May 27 2011

Congressional Game of Chicken: Presidential Recess Appointments

Back in October, I wrote this article, Separation of Powers Game of Chicken, which discussed the use of pro forma sessions to block the president from making recess appointments. The reason I’m resurrecting this discussion is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled these pro forma sessions over the holiday weekend to prevent President Obama from appointing Elizabeth Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Board over the objections of Republicans. As with the blocking of Richard Diamond, an eminently qualified Nobel economist, to the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve, it is Sen. Richard “no” Shelby (R-AL) who has said he will put a hold on Dr. Warren’s appointment if the president nominates her.

Republicans used the threat of a procedural blockade to make sure President Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to make recess appointments while the U.S. Senate is on a break next week, including naming Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Instead of allowing all senators and their staffs to leave Washington, Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled “pro forma” sessions, in which the chamber officially opens for the day, then gavels to a close right away. That can be handled by two lawmakers and aides.

Any time the Senate breaks for four days or more, the president has the power to officially appoint a nominee for a limited period without having to wait for a confirmation vote.

snip

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, kept the Senate in pro forma sessions during the final months of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration to block him from appointing nominees that Democrats had refused to confirm.

If Reid hadn’t decided to quietly schedule pro forma sessions, another procedure could have publicly forced him to do so. The House is required to agree to Senate recesses, and concurs as a matter of routine.

Confused? Is Reid a Democrat? Or has he secretly gone over to the dark side? It is time for the president and the Democrats to put on their “man pants” and call out these faux sessions that are constitutionally not legal sessions. I will repeat the arguments of why these pro forma sessions are not constitutional and do not stop the president from making recess appoints.

Victor Williams, Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of America School of Law and an attorney, writing for the The National Law Journal makes the argument that the pro forma sessions every three days during recess are little more “than a game of separation-of-powers chicken”. There is nothing in the Constitution and Appellate courts have ruled that “there is no minimum recess time required for a valid recess appointment”.

But there is no minimum recess required under any law. The three-day minimum recess is fiction – as fake as are the Senate faux sessions. Better to begin with nonfiction – the Constitution.

In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled: “The 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.” In Evans v. Stephens, the 11th Circuit, following prior 9th and 2d circuit rulings, broadly affirmed the executive’s unilateral recess commissioning authority during short intersession and intrasession breaks.

Even the Senate’s own Congressional Research Service reports: “The Constitu­tion does not specify the length of time that the Senate must be in recess before the President may make a recess appointment.” . . .

The president’s constitutional appointment authority cannot be trumped, or even limited, by Senate scheduling shenanigans. In fact and law, the 111th Senate is now dispersed to the four corners for six campaign weeks. Gaveling open, and then gaveling closed, a half-minute meeting of an empty chamber is not a legitimate break in the recess. A Senate quorum could not be gathered; neither legislative nor executive business could be conducted. Constitutional law demands substance over form.

The faux sessions only further expose the broken institution and its failed, dysfunctional confirmation processes.

At bottom, recess appointments are a matter of presidential will. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt set the standard when he recess-appointed 160 officials during a recess of less than one day.

Mr. Williams points out that George W Bush’s failure to call this should not be Barack Obama’s.

Perhaps it is George W. Bush’s fault that the media erroneously reported that Obama’s recess appointment authority is lost. When majority leader Harry Reid first used the pro forma tactic against Bush over Thanksgiving, 2007, the 43rd president failed to push back.

Bush did not recess appoint for the remainder of his term despite calls for him to call Harry Reid’s bluff. A commissioning of even one noncontroversial nominee to a low level position would have asserted the executive’s prerogative. His failure to do so may be mistakenly interpreted as setting a precedent. It does not.

As I have noted on this site, Harry Reid appears to have gotten the better of George Bush; bluffing is a basic gambling skill for separation of powers and Texas Hold ’em.

This government is in need of a major shake up. It’s time that the President and the Democrats stood up for the people who put them in office. End the game, call the bluff.

Oct 13 2010

Separation of Powers Game of Chicken

Here is the argument for President Obama to appointment Peter Diamond, the Economics Nobel laureate, the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve and make other appointments that have been blocked by the obstructionist Republicans and some blue Dog Democrats. Dr. Diamond’s confirmation has been blocked by Republicans, chief among them, Sen. Richard Shelby who had the audacity to call him “not qualified”.

Victor Williams, Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of America School of Law and an attorney, writing for the The National Law Journal makes the argument that the pro forma sessions every three days during recess are little more “than a game of separation-of-powers chicken”. There is nothing in the Constitution and Appellate courts have ruled that “there is no minimum recess time required for a valid recess appointment”.

But there is no minimum recess required under any law. The three-day minimum recess is fiction – as fake as are the Senate faux sessions. Better to begin with nonfiction – the Constitution.

In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled: “The 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.” In Evans v. Stephens, the 11th Circuit, following prior 9th and 2d circuit rulings, broadly affirmed the executive’s unilateral recess commissioning authority during short intersession and intrasession breaks.

Even the Senate’s own Congressional Research Service reports: “The Constitu­tion does not specify the length of time that the Senate must be in recess before the President may make a recess appointment.” . . .

The president’s constitutional appointment authority cannot be trumped, or even limited, by Senate scheduling shenanigans. In fact and law, the 111th Senate is now dispersed to the four corners for six campaign weeks. Gaveling open, and then gaveling closed, a half-minute meeting of an empty chamber is not a legitimate break in the recess. A Senate quorum could not be gathered; neither legislative nor executive business could be conducted. Constitutional law demands substance over form.

The faux sessions only further expose the broken institution and its failed, dysfunctional confirmation processes.

At bottom, recess appointments are a matter of presidential will. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt set the standard when he recess-appointed 160 officials during a recess of less than one day.

Mr. Williams points out that George W Bush’s failure to call this should not be Barack Obama’s.

Perhaps it is George W. Bush’s fault that the media erroneously reported that Obama’s recess appointment authority is lost. When majority leader Harry Reid first used the pro forma tactic against Bush over Thanksgiving, 2007, the 43rd president failed to push back.

Bush did not recess appoint for the remainder of his term despite calls for him to call Harry Reid’s bluff. A commissioning of even one noncontroversial nominee to a low level position would have asserted the executive’s prerogative. His failure to do so may be mistakenly interpreted as setting a precedent. It does not.

As I have noted on this site, Harry Reid appears to have gotten the better of George Bush; bluffing is a basic gambling skill for separation of powers and Texas Hold ’em.

Mr. President, you are a Constitutional Lawyer, starting the day after the elections, November 3, “buck up” and call the bluff.