There is a reasonable possibility that the Republican-controlled Senate will refuse to confirm any of President Obama’s nominees (or any such nominees who fall into particular categories) in the next Congress. By refusing to confirm nominees, the Republicans would be remedying (it might be argued) the illegal use of the “nuclear option” last year, which allowed Senate Democrats to confirm numerous nominees who otherwise would have been blocked by Senate rules. Senator Ted Cruz has also proposed that the Senate refuse to confirm any Obama nominees, except those in “vital national security positions,” as a response to the executive order on immigration announced this week.
Were this to occur, the issue of recess appointments may again rear its ugly head. To my knowledge, there are currently no recess appointees serving in the administration. It is possible that the President could make recess appointments during the lame duck period, but I assume that House Republicans will foreclose this by refusing to adopt any adjournment resolution that might open the door to such appointments. Instead, each house will (I am guessing) formally adjourn for no more than three days at a time, holding pro forma sessions when necessary for the remainder of the 113th Congress.
One might assume that this pattern would continue for the 114th Congress. However, if the Senate is embargoing most or all Obama nominees, the congressional leadership may see an advantage in allowing the administration to use recess appointments as a safety valve to fill critical or emergency vacancies. If that were the case, the House and Senate would “recess” (which now should be taken as a technical term meaning a concurrent adjournment of both houses for more than three days) from time to time, allowing Obama to make recess appointments during this period.
Any recess appointments made subsequent to the commencement of the first session of the 114th Congress (scheduled for January 6, 2015) would last until the end of the next Senate “session,” which, according to the conventional wisdom endorsed by the Supreme Court in Noel Canning, would normally mean that recess appointees would serve until the end of the Obama administration.
But is this necessarily the case? Professor Seth Barrett Tillman, in a colloquy several years ago with Professor Kalt, argues that the Senate may terminate a recess appointment simply by adopting a resolution declaring its session to be at an end and then promptly re-convening in a new session. Kalt disagrees, contending that both the House and Senate must act together in order to end a session and contending that even this would be a “constitutional impropriety” because it would involve the House in matters relating to appointments and confirmations.
I think Kalt is clearly right that once Congress convenes, both the House and Senate must agree before the session can be ended. It should also be noted that the administration may argue (incorrectly, in my view) that convening a new session of Congress prior to the constitutional default date requires enactment of a law.
Unlike Kalt, though, I see no constitutional impropriety in the House and Senate deciding to formally recess, say, twice a year, once in the summer and once for the Christmas holiday, as clearly intended by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. During these recesses, the President could make recess appointments that would last until the next recess (i.e., the end of the next session). Adopting such “Tillman adjournments” would give the President the ability to fill critical vacancies while limiting the duration of recess appointments to prevent abuse. It would also re-establish the “recess” as the period between “sessions,” as clearly intended by the framers.
The President could make successive recess appointments to keep a particular vacancy filled. But he could not re-appoint the same individual to fill the vacancy, at least not if that person wanted to be paid.
Michael Cannon has made a suggestion, resembling my last post in some respects, that the new Republican majority in the Senate use the nuclear option for purposes of repealing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. However, for some reason Cannon recommends that the Senate proceed by way of reconciliation, a cumbersome process that is unnecessary if the nuclear option is going to be invoked.
It is true that the nuclear option could be used in conjunction with reconciliation (by, for example, exempting an Obamacare repeal provision from all budget-reconciliation points of order), but it is equally true that it could be used to overcome filibusters of a straight Obamacare repeal bill outside the reconciliation process. For that matter, the Senate could “nuke” all filibusters against measures offered by left-handed senators from states that begin with the letter “M.” That is the joy of making arbitrary exceptions to regular order.
It is also curious that Cannon recommends the Senate formally change the Senate rules in order to repeal Obamacare. This is not how the nuclear option was used last year. The Senate did not change its rules to exempt non-Supreme Court nominations from the filibuster. It simply ruled, for unexplained reasons, that such nominations were not subject to filibuster. What would be the point of formally changing the rules through a procedure premised on the notion that the rules are meaningless?
I suspect we are going to hear many arguments about Senate procedure in the upcoming year. These arguments will be marked by confusion unless they understand the nature of what the Senate did when it invoked the nuclear option. We not in a Cinderella Senate but an Alice in Wonderland Senate.
Richard Arenberg, an expert on Senate procedure, wrote an interesting article on Monday asking “Would a new Senate majority abuse the budget reconciliation process?” This question matters if one assumes that the minority still has the power to filibuster in the Senate. But does it?
The Senate “nuclear option” ruling a year ago did not, of course, purport to eliminate the filibuster entirely. The words of that ruling apply only to non-Supreme Court nominations. But these words are meaningless. The only principle that can be derived from the ruling is that the Senate majority is not obliged to comply with Senate Rule XXII (or, presumably, with any other Senate rule) if it chooses not to do so.
The Republicans, it may be noted, have committed publicly to maintaining the filibuster and perhaps even reversing the exercise of the nuclear option. But even if the Republicans want to do so, they cannot restore the status quo ante (at least not by themselves).
Of course, the new Senate majority could refrain from bringing measures to a final vote unless there are 60 votes in favor of doing so. It could do this even if there were no Senate rule regarding the subject. But such restraint would not undo the nuclear option ruling. It would merely establish, as a factual matter, that the current majority does not choose to disregard Senate Rule XXII.
The Senate could formally overturn the nuclear option ruling. Doing so, however, would not have any more precedential value than did similar actions in the past. There is no reason to believe that a formal overruling of the nuclear option would prevent a future Senate from invoking the nuclear option again to prevent filibusters for nominations or any other matters. It would in effect entrench the filibuster only for as long as the Republicans hold the majority, an outcome that the Republicans would presumably find unattractive.
The Senate Republicans may also find that they have a problem with their constituents. If the Democrats filibuster a measure that is important to the Republican base, it will be difficult to explain why the Republican majority is bound to adhere to rules that their opponents do not recognize.
Perhaps there is a way for the Senate to entrench Rule XXII in a way that makes it once again genuinely binding on the body. But this would require the agreement of both parties. Perhaps a formal repudiation of the nuclear option accompanied by enactment of a new process for changing the rules, such as I suggested here, would do the trick. Short of this, Senate Rule XXII should now be considered more of a guideline than a rule.
A couple months ago we discussed the question of whether informal information gathering is a legislative activity protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. As I noted at the time, there is case law suggesting that some informal information gathering is protected, but significant uncertainty as to how one defines the type of information gathering meriting such protection.
An easy case would be a witness interview conducted by committee investigators. Such an interview would be informal in the sense that the witness’s attendance is voluntary, there would (probably) be no transcript of the interview, and there would be no formal procedures for asking questions and making objections. Yet in function and substance such an interview is very similar to a committee deposition, and thus a strong case can be made that it warrants the same level of protection.
Now extend that to a telephone conversation in which a committee investigator calls a witness to ask the same sort of questions. This is even more informal than a scheduled, in-person interview, but if it is clear from the circumstances that the investigator is gathering information for use in a committee investigation, it would make sense to treat it the same way.
The problem comes in trying to extend this principle to the myriad conversations and meetings that a typical committee staffer (or any congressional staffer) would have during the course of a day. These could include discussions with agency officials, constituents, lobbyists, interest groups, government contractors, legislative support staff and many others. During any one of these conversations a staffer might gather some information of potential use to the committee’s investigatory and oversight activities, but the same conversation might cover many other matters, such as constituent complaints, efforts by lobbyists and others to obtain contracts, favors or other benefits from the legislative or executive branches, or “cajoling” of agencies by members of Congress. One might also distinguish between the type of general background information that might be covered in a typical agency briefing and specific information that might be obtained from a fact witness on a matter the committee is investigating.
One question that might be asked is whether any statements made by the outside individual to the congressional staffer would be covered by the False Statements Act, 18 U.S.C. 1001, which criminalizes false statements to Congress in the course of “any investigation or review, conducted pursuant to the authority of any committee, subcommittee, commission or office of the Congress, consistent with applicable rules of the House or Senate.” That section would seem to presume some sort of structure or formality to connect the false statement to the investigation or review, as opposed to statements that might be made in the course of impromptu conversations with congressional staff.
An interesting recent case on this issue is Williams v. Johnson, Civ. Action No. 06-2076, in which the plaintiff, an employee of the DC Department of Health, sued the DC Government for allegedly retaliating against her for remarks she made in testimony before the DC Council Committee on Health and in a separate meeting with the chairman of that committee, David Catania, and two of his aides. She subpoenaed Catania and one of his aides to testify and produce documents related to these events, and they moved to quash on the basis of DC’s Speech or Debate statute, which has been interpreted to provide the same protection as the federal Speech or Debate Clause. Continue reading ‘The Speech or Debate Clause and Protection of Informal Information Gathering’ »
I have previously explained that the Speech or Debate Clause does not protect members from discipline by their legislative body, up to and including expulsion. Since the subject arose again in the last couple of days (in the course of a Glenn Greenwald initiated thread on Twitter), it may be worth adverting to Senator Ervin’s argument before the Supreme Court in Gravel v. United States.
Senators Ervin and Saxbe represented the Senate as amicus curiae in the case, and the Court gave the Senate time during oral argument. Ervin’s argument stressed that the Senate “holds no brief” for Senator Gravel or his actions (i.e., reading of the classified Pentagon Papers in a subcommittee meeting). He acknowledged that Gravel’s actions may have been improper and/or in violation of Senate rules, but he contended that the Constitution places these questions exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Senate.
Senator Ervin stressed that a member of Congress is “not accountable” to the executive or judicial branches for his legislative activity, whether that activity is “regular or irregular under the rules of the legislative body of which he is a member.” In Gravel’s case, those questions were the business only of the Senate itself. In response to a justice who asked “That inquiry or discipline or both is something exclusively for the Senate?,” Ervin responded, “That’s right.”
Pointing out that the Rules of Proceedings and Discipline Clauses are in the section of Article I immediately preceding the section in which the Speech or Debate Clause appears, Ervin reiterated: “Our position is that . . . even though Senator Gravel may have violated Senate rules and even though he may have acted improperly, that is a matter for the judgment of the Senate and no other power in our government has the right to make any official pronouncement on that subject.”
Greenwald and his ilk argue that senators who believe (or claim to believe) that classified information should be released should put their money where their mouth is by reading the information on the floor of the Senate, where they would be protected by Speech or Debate immunity from legal punishment (though not from congressional discipline). Whatever one thinks about such congressional “civil disobedience” as a normative matter, I am puzzled that anyone would advocate it when the senators have not yet used, or attempted to use, the established Senate procedure for releasing classified information.
As the Ninth Circuit helpfully explained yesterday (hat tip: Zoe Tillman) in affirming former congressman Rick Renzi’s conviction on various corruption charges, “Congressmen may write the law, but they are not above the law.” In doing so, the panel rejected two Speech or Debate arguments Renzi raised on appeal. (For Renzi’s prior unsuccessful trip to the Ninth Circuit on Speech or Debate, see here).
The first issue revolved around two pieces of testimony the prosecution elicited from Joanne Keene, Renzi’s former district director. Keene testified that (1) Renzi’s interest in a potential land exchange bill seemed to depend on whether the tract of land belonging to his secret business partner was included and (2) Renzi indicated to her that he was having second thoughts about the land exchange legislation because of the news about Duke Cunningham’s indictment on corruption charges. The prosecution contended that this testimony did not violate the Speech or Debate Clause because it directly rebutted evidence Renzi had offered to show that his actions in the legislative process were taken for legitimate reasons.
The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding “if a member of Congress offers evidence of his own legislative acts at trial, the government is entitled to introduce rebuttal evidence narrowly confined to the same legislative acts, and such rebuttal evidence does not constitute questioning the member of Congress in violation of the Clause.” This sounds likes a waiver analysis, but the court declined to characterize it as such (in order to avoid Supreme Court caselaw setting a very high bar for waiver of Speech or Debate). Instead, the court concluded somehow that Renzi was not being “questioned” within the meaning of the Clause. Nevertheless, the court’s basic approach, which accords with that of other circuits, seems to make sense. After all, it is hard to see how a member of Congress can introduce exculpatory evidence of legislative acts and not have that evidence subject to some degree of rebuttal or cross-examination. (On the other hand, the D.C. Circuit appears to have adopted something akin to a no cross-examination rule in the context of congressional employment cases).
The more interesting language from the court’s opinion, though, appears in footnote 24, where the Ninth Circuit indicates that the evidence challenged by Renzi would in any event not violate the Speech or Debate Clause because it concerned only Renzi’s performance of future legislative acts. The footnote suggests there is no protection for discussion of potential legislation that has not actually been introduced, while discussion of introduced legislation may be considered part of the legislative process and therefore protected.
As far as I know, this is the first time a court has suggested that the formal introduction of legislation is key to determining the applicability of the Speech or Debate Clause. This would mean, for example, that if Renzi had drafted a land exchange bill, but told his staff to hold off introducing it because of the Duke Cunningham investigation there would be no protection. On the other hand, if Renzi actually introduced the legislation, but told his staff to hold off seeking co-sponsors for the same reason, the Clause would apply. It is hard to see how this distinction makes sense as a matter of constitutional text or purpose. If taken seriously, it would call into question whether legislative activities such as fact-gathering or bill-drafting would be protected.
But the Ninth Circuit panel itself may not take the distinction that seriously. This is shown by the court’s disposition of Renzi’s second Speech or Debate argument. Renzi had wanted to call the former chief of staff to Congressman Kolbe to testify about “conversations between Kolbe and Renzi regarding the proposed [land exchange] bill.” However, “[b]ecause this testimony directly implicated Kolbe’s legislative activities,” the appellate panel concluded that this testimony was properly excluded as violating Kolbe’s Speech or Debate privilege.
The land exchange bill in question, however, was never actually introduced: thus it would seem that Kolbe’s discussions with Renzi should have been unprotected under the court’s own reasoning. It appears that the trial and appellate courts applied the Clause inconsistently to allow evidence the prosecution wanted to introduce but block evidence that Renzi wanted to introduce. Perhaps there is an explanation for this discrepancy, but it is not obvious to me.
Maybe they just don’t like congressmen who think they are above the law.
Professor Brian C. Kalt has posted this response to Benjamin Cassady’s article on the Impeachment and Disqualfication Clauses. (Hat tip- Seth Barrett Tillman. Apparently there is a whole symposium on this topic, and more articles will be forthcoming). I had to smile when I read Professor Kalt’s opening paragraphs:
Benjamin Cassady has put great effort into an arcane subject: When someone is impeached and convicted, and disqualified from any “office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States,” can that person be elected to Congress? I am one of a group of people who would discuss subjects like these endlessly, but for the fact that members of our group can be hard to find. As such, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity both to read Mr. Cassady’s article (referred to below as Your Crook) and to write this response.
This response will disagree with some things in Your Crook, and the discussion may get a bit animated. But this is the excited disagreement of a kindred spirit, not of a harsh critic. When football fans shout at each other about who was the greatest running back in NFL history, it is because they love football, and because they have more fun probing their disagreements than they would cataloguing their much-more-voluminous common ground. So too with the Disqualification Clause of the Constitution. I agree with Your Crook that disqualification does not apply to election to the House or Senate, and I agree that voters should have as free a hand as the Constitution will allow to elect representatives and senators that others in Congress might find scurrilous.
For what its worth, I pretty much agree with everything that Kalt has to say with regard to the application of the Disqualification Clause to the House and Senate. His claim that Barry Sanders is the greatest running back of all time, on the other hand . . .
Applying Benjamin Cassady’s “electoral pardon” principle might suggest that the Disqualification Clause is inapplicable to the presidency (and vice-presidency). After all, if voters are allowed to disregard a candidate’s prior impeachment (or expulsion) and elect “their crook” to Congress, why shouldn’t the same hold true for a candidate for president? Professor Tillman maintains that the Disqualification Clause doesn’t apply to any elected offices, whether in Congress or the executive branch, thus consistently preserving the “electoral pardon” principle. Cassady, on the other hand, contends that the Framers did not take the principle that far:
[I]t should be noted that the Presidency was a uniquely American institution, substituting an elected and impeachable chief executive for an English monarch who was legally unreachable because he was presumed incapable of wrongdoing. As a result, the Wilkensian lessons of popular sovereignty and electoral pardon did not develop in the context of the executive branch, and it is sensible that the Framers would settle on a different default rule (impeachment and disqualification) for the elected President than the rule (expulsion and re-election) applied traditionally to the people’s legislators. Put another way, disqualifying an elected President for official wrongdoing couldn’t encroach on the people’s traditional right to pardon and re-elect a chief executive, because no such right existed in English history.
Cassady, 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. at 276 n. 332.
Frankly, this explanation strikes me as rather circular. As indicated in my last post, however, I don’t find the “electoral pardon” principle all that persuasive in explaining the Disqualification Clause in the first place, and it seems to me that there is a stronger policy reason for disqualifying candidates for the presidency than for other offices, elected or appointed. But, as I am sure Professor Tillman would be quick to remind me, my policy intuitions are not constitutional law.
The precise question is whether the president holds an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” as that phrase is used in the Disqualification Clause. Cassady’s article sheds some light on the origin of this language. He provides examples in English statutory law that referred to some variant of an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit,” where it almost always referred to offices conferred by the Crown. Id. at 278-80. As such, the offices were often identified as being “under” the Crown.
Early state constitutions also used terminology like “offices of honor, trust or profit” to refer generally to positions in the executive and judicial branches. See id. at 280-81 (“The overwhelming majority of examples from state constitutions distinguishes sharply between those who hold offices of honor, trust, or profit and members of the legislature”) & n. 355. Sometimes these offices were identified as being “under this state,” “under this commonwealth,” or “under the government.” See, e.g., Ga. Const. of 1777, art. XI (“No person bearing any post of profit under this State . . . shall be elected as a representative.”).
So I have now read Benjamin Cassady’s “You’ve Got Your Crook, I’ve Got Mine,” 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 209 (2014), to which Professor Tillman’s article responds. Cassady makes the case that the Constitution’s Impeachment and Disqualification Clauses do not apply to federal legislators. Much of the article is devoted to explaining why this result makes sense as a policy matter: basically that a crooked legislator is not as dangerous as a crooked judge or executive official and that voters should be able to “pardon” a crooked legislator by returning her to office with full knowledge of her misdeeds.
Cassady discusses at some length the famous case of John Wilkes, a radical and controversial member of Parliament who was expelled multiple times by the House of Commons for libelous comments but continually re-elected by his constituents. He argues that the fall-out from this case ultimately led to the recognition of an “electoral pardon” principle in the United States, pursuant to which it is improper for a legislator to be expelled (or not seated) based on conduct known to her constituents at the time they elect her.
I think Cassady is correct in his interpretation of the Impeachment and Disqualification Clauses. He may or may not be right that the “electoral pardon” principle explains why the Constitution treats legislators differently in this regard than executive or judicial officers. I am not sure myself that this distinction, particularly with regard to disqualification, makes that much sense from a policy standpoint. One might argue that there is no more reason to disqualify an impeached official from a future appointment to an executive or judicial office than from a future election to a congressional seat. After all, if the “voters” (who, in the case of senators, would originally have been the members of the state legislature) can “pardon” a candidate for a congressional seat, why shouldn’t the president and the Senate be permitted to “pardon” a nominee to an executive or judicial office?