McConnell on Recess Appointments and “Executive Overreach”

Today’s WSJ features an op-ed by former federal judge Michael McConnell on President Obama’s decision to grant recess appointments to Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Board and three members of the National Labor Relations Board.

It is hard to imagine a plausible constitutional basis for the appointments. The president has power to make recess appointments only when the Senate is in recess. Several years ago—under the leadership of Harry Reid and with the vote of then-Sen. Obama—the Senate adopted a practice of holding pro forma sessions every three days during its holidays with the expressed purpose of preventing President George W. Bush from making recess appointments during intrasession adjournments. This administration must think the rules made to hamstring President Bush do not apply to President Obama. But an essential bedrock of any functioning democratic republic is that the same rules apply regardless of who holds office.

It does not matter, constitutionally, that congressional Republicans have abused their authority by refusing to confirm qualified nominees—just as congressional Democrats did in the previous administration. Governance in a divided system is by nature frustrating. But the president cannot use unconstitutional means to combat political shenanigans. If the filibuster is a problem, the Senate majority has power to eliminate or weaken it, by an amendment to Senate Rule 22. They just need to be aware that the same rules will apply to them if and when they return to minority status and wish to use the filibuster to obstruct Republican appointments and policies.

McConnell notes that Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, who is now defending the recess appointments, “dismissed as ‘absurd’ any suggestion that a period of ‘a fortnight, or a weekend, or overnight’ is a ‘recess’ for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause.” He also observes that the Administration “has offered no considered legal defense for the recess appointments,” suggesting there was no Office of Legal Counsel memo supporting its claim. Writing in the LA Times, Bruce Ackerman likewise expressed doubts that the Justice Department’s OLC backed the decision:

Normally, presidents rely on the Justice Department to present their case on matters of high constitutional importance. But Obama has refused to take this course, probably because traditionalists in the department refused to endorse his collision course with the Senate. Instead, he used his White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, to serve as his legal mouthpiece.

As Ackerman observed, the Administration adopted the same approach when declaring the military intervention in Libya was not a military conflict. The Administration also circumvented OLC when it decided to back the constitutionality of legislation granting voting rights to the District of Columbia.

Back on the subject of the constitutionality of recess appointments, at the Originalism blog, Michael Rappaport offers a post, “Recess Appointments: The Original Meaning and Its Decline.”