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Gaming out the Coming Confirmation War

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.

 

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