The Recess Appointments Clause, the Civil War Congress and Congressional “Acquiescence”

When we left the Recess Appointments Clause in the mid-19th century (for earlier posts, see here, here and here), the executive branch had embraced the proposition that a vacancy “may happen” in the recess of the Senate even though it first arose while the Senate was in session. The legislative branch had not accepted this position, but had not clearly rejected it either.

With regard to original vacancies, the situation was reversed. The Senate was understood to have rejected the use of the RAC to fill original vacancies, while the executive branch, to the extent that it had addressed the issue, seemed to have accepted the Senate’s position.

Neither branch, as far as I know, had directly addressed the lurking issue of whether Congress by legislation could change the baseline RAC rules. Presumably Congress may not regulate (or at least not eliminate) the core RAC power of temporarily filling vacancies that arise during the Senate’s recess. But can Congress legislate around the penumbral edges of the RAC?

For example, can Congress legislatively define the circumstances in which it would be proper for the President to fill a vacancy that arose before the recess in question began? Could it prohibit the President from filling the vacancy if he failed to submit a timely nomination while the Senate was in session? Could it prohibit the President from filling a vacancy that arose before the Senate session that preceded the recess? Could it prohibit successive uses of the RAC for the same vacancy? These questions remained (and still remain) open, but at this point Congress had not attempted to use its legislative power to curtail the President’s use of the RAC.

On the other hand, it seems to have been assumed that Congress could supplement the President’s RAC powers. As had been noted by the Senate Committee on Military Affairs in 1822, there had been “many instances” where Congress had created new offices and expressly delegated to the President the power to fill them during the recess. A statute enacted in 1792 allowed the President to fill vacancies, whether or not during the recess, in the offices of the Secretaries of State, Treasury and War. This clearly gave the President power that he would not have under the RAC. It appears that no one questioned Congress’s authority to bestow such powers on the President.

Such equilibrium as existed, however, was upset in the second half of the 19th century. In 1855, for example, Attorney General Cushing questioned the proposition that newly created statutory offices could not be filled using the RAC. Because he was addressing the issue of filling diplomatic and consular offices, Cushing relied primarily on the idea that these were constitutional offices that could be created by the President, rather than statutory offices (similar to the argument made by Bibb and Horsey in 1814). Nevertheless, Cushing stated that “I . . . cannot allow myself to think that, even if these were statute offices, and the public service should require any one of them to be filled during the recess, it could not constitutionally be done.” 7 Op. Atty Gen. 186, 225 (1855).

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