Comptroller General Warren and the Origins of the Multi-Session Recess Appointment

As far as I know, Lindsay Warren was a competent attorney who served honorably as the third Comptroller General of the United States. The opinions that he issued in the summer of 1948 regarding the Recess Appointments Clause, however, were not a high point of his career or of the GAO’s protection of the institutional interests of the Congress.

To set the stage, Warren had been a long-serving Democratic congressman from North Carolina who was thrice offered the position of Comptroller General by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The third time, in 1940, while he was serving as acting House Majority Leader, Warren accepted the offer. Warren’s acceptance of the position was an important signal that Roosevelt, who had previously attempted to eliminate or radically transform the GAO, no longer intended to do so. As Warren would later explain: “Mr. Roosevelt gave up his fight when I accepted this appointment. . . . [I]t is hard to conceive that I would give up a seat in Congress and accept this position in order to preside over the liquidation of the General Accounting Office.”

During World War II, the GAO’s most important function was to audit and investigate military expenditures, particularly the thousands of cost-plus contracts that were awarded in support of the war effort. In this role Warren worked closely with then-Senator Harry Truman, who chaired the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. For example, in April 1943 Warren informed Truman of kickbacks that were being paid by Detroit-area subcontractors to procure work on these cost-plus defense contracts. Warren later proposed legislation, with Truman’s support, to prohibit such kickbacks.

Warren’s partisan affiliation and his close ties to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations may or may not be relevant to what follows, but they are certainly worth keeping in mind.

Truman became Roosevelt’s Vice President and ascended to the presidency on Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. The Republicans won control of Congress in 1946, ending (or interrupting) the period of Democratic dominance that began with the elections of 1932. The Eightieth Congress assembled on January 3, 1947 and adjourned on July 27, 1947. Rather than adjourning sine die, however, it adjourned to January 2, 1948, and reserved to congressional leaders the authority to call the Congress back into session at an earlier date. It followed the same practice in 1948, adjourning on June 20 until December 31, but authorizing congressional leaders to call members back early.

Given the bitter relations that developed between President Truman and the Republican Congress, one might assume that this practice was designed, as in the Fortieth Congress, as a means of thwarting the exercise of presidential authority. In fact, according to the Senate historian, it reflected a precaution taken in case something happened to the President (there being no Vice President to assume his duties).

To make matters more interesting, in both 1947 and 1948, Truman used his power under Article II, section 3 (“he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them”) to convene Congress during its extended adjournment. He convened Congress from November 17, 1947 to December 19, 1947, and again from July 26, 1948 to August 7, 1948.

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