Professor Chafetz and the “Constitutionally Conscientious Senator”

Before considering the Senate’s action last week in amending its rules, I want to summarize one additional anti-entrenchment school of thought. We have already discussed the theory of the December 12 letter, which holds that a simple majority must be able to obtain a rules change at the beginning of a new Congress. An alternative theory advanced by Professors McGinnis and Rappaport is that a simple majority must be able to obtain a rules change at any time. As we have seen, there are significant problems with each of these alternatives, not the least of which is its inconsistency with Senate practice and precedent.

Professor Josh Chafetz, in an article entitled “The Unconstitutionality of the Filibuster,” suggests a third anti-entrenchment approach. Chafetz acknowledges that the Constitution does not require “immediate fulfillment of every wish of the legislative majority,” and he notes “all procedural rules delay the implementation of majority will to some extent, and all rulemaking has at least something of an entrenching effect.” However, he draws a distinction between “acceptable procedural rules” and “unacceptable permanent minority obstruction.”

Chafetz argues that the Senate’s “purported history” of unlimited debate cannot justify the current Senate rules because “the modern filibuster is not about debate.” Modern practice under Senate Rule XXII, he contends, is really a de facto requirement of 60 votes to pass any measure. In contrast, during the 19th century, although there were no formal limits on debate, it was rare for senators to use the privilege of unlimited debate as a means of blocking legislative measures and even in the 20th century, when the ability to filibuster became more formalized, it was generally used only for measures intensely opposed by the minority (particularly civil rights legislation) until the 1970s.

In Chafetz’s view, a “constitutionally conscientious Senator” would be justified in concluding that the current rules cross the line (which he acknowledges to be imprecise) between acceptable procedural rules and unacceptable minority obstruction. Professor Akhil Amar has expressed a similar view:

It is the right and duty of each senator to adjudicate for herself whether Rule 22 has in fact come to operate as an improper rule of decision rather than a proper rule of debate. And in adjudicating that question, the Senate, operating as a constitutional court of sorts, acts by majority rule, just as the Supreme Court itself does when adjudicating constitutional (and other) questions.

Akhil Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution 368-69 (2012).

Chafetz likewise stresses that the Senate would be performing an adjudicatory function such as a court performs when it exercises the power of judicial review, as opposed to the “application of brute force” by the Senate majority to “displace legitimate rules.” As such, he argues that this function can be performed at any time and is not limited to the beginning of a new Congress.

Chafetz proposes the following constitutional principle to guide the Senate in determining the validity of a legislative rule: “a determined and focused legislative majority must be able to get its way in a reasonable amount of time.” This, he notes, is a “standard, not a rule.” Thus, “[a] constitutionally conscientious Senator would have to exercise her judgment in determining what the line should be between acceptable procedural rules and unacceptable permanent minority obstruction.”

I think Chafetz is quite right to focus on the judicial nature of the Senate’s function here and to approach the issue from the perspective of the “constitutionally conscientious Senator.” However, I believe that such as senator would be (rightfully) skeptical of the theory Chafetz advances.

Continue reading “Professor Chafetz and the “Constitutionally Conscientious Senator””

How Might the Administration Respond to the Noel Canning Decision?

Professor Seth Barrett Tillman takes issue with point 5 (see update below)

Here are the options I can think of for the administration and/or Senate Democrats to respond to the D.C. Circuit’s invalidation of President Obama’s January 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Three of the options involve seeking to reverse the decision and three involve strategies to get Senate confirmation so as to permanently fill the vacancies. Note that the latter doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of NLRB (and perhaps CFPB) actions being invalidated for the period during which the recess appointees served.

1. Seek rehearing en banc. This would seem like the most obvious first step, except for the fact that there are only 8 active judges on the D.C. Circuit, meaning that all five of the judges not on the panel would have to vote for taking it en banc (assuming that the three judges on the panel vote against it). This is not impossible, and it is also possible that Judge Griffith, who declined to join the majority opinion with respect to the issue of when vacancies “happen,” could vote for rehearing to narrow the scope of the opinion. But if rehearing were granted, the most likely outcome is that the administration would still lose, just on narrower grounds.

2. Seek Supreme Court review. I have to assume that the Department of Justice will eventually do this because it simply cannot permit the D.C. Circuit opinion to stand as written. It perhaps could have lived with a narrow decision that only found that the Senate was in session when it held pro forma sessions, but Judge Sentelle’s opinion would make virtually every recess appointment legally questionable. The only issue is whether DOJ feels that it has to seek Supreme Court review immediately, or whether it tries to get en banc rehearing first.

I think there is a very high likelihood that the Supreme Court will take up this case. Of course I have been wrong before.

3. Use the new Senate rules to get permanent appointees confirmed. The Senate made some changes to its filibuster rules this week that are supposed to streamline the confirmations process. At the end of the day, however, the rules still permit the minority to filibuster a nomination (to my understanding- I haven’t had a chance to study the new rules yet). So this seems like a long shot.

4. Use the nuclear option. The Senate Democratic majority could be so ticked off by the Noel Canning decision that it could decide to use the “nuclear option” to prevent filibusters on nominations. The currently fashionable theory is that the “nuclear option” can only be used at the beginning of a new Congress, and that window would seem to have closed with the Senate’s adoption of rules changes this week. But who is to say that the Senate won’t fall in love with a new theory?

5. Prorouge [Make that Prorogue] Congress. If the Senate wanted to go into “recess” (i.e., the kind of recess the D.C. Circuit would accept for purpose of making recess appointments), it could ask the House for an adjournment and, if it refused (which presumably it would), the President could exercise his power to “adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper” under art. II, section 3, cl. 2. No president has ever exercised this power before and it is not clear whether the adjournment would actually end the session, but its still possible . . . .

6.  Pack the D.C. Circuit. There are three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. Obama could make recess appointments to fill them and then the new judges could vote for rehearing en banc. That should set off a fine constitutional crisis.


Update -Professor Tillman emails the following comment

I have to disagree with point 5.

First, you misspelled prorogue!

Second, and more substantively, if the House refused to agree to an adjournment with a concomitant termination of the session and the start of a new session, in other words, if the House refused to create a recess, you suggest that the President could use his Article II power to “adjourn the[] [two Houses] to such Time as [the President] shall think proper.” But, I do not think this will work . . . . Presidential action here is just an adjournment order, not a proper recess. See Jefferson’s Manual Section 50. The President’s action will not terminate extant legislative business. So it does not create a recess per the Recess Appointments Clause. Moreover, even if it did create a recess, you are still stuck (in the case of NLRB and CFPB) with the fact that the vacancies will not have arisen during the newly manufactured recesses.

Still I think you are on to something vis-a-vis proroguing the Senate. There is some reason to believe that even if the Senate is in (legislative or executive) session, the President still has an independent power to convene the Senate. This is a different power from the Article II to which you referred. The Constitution states: The President “may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.” Jefferson took the position that a session convened by presidential proclamation terminates the old session and starts a new one. See Jefferson’s Manual Section 51. See generally Ashley v. Keith Oil Co., 7 F.R.D. 589, 591–92 (D. Mass. 1947) (Wyzanski, J.). And, of course, you could always read my papers on congressional continuity in different contexts: Seth Barrett Tillman, Noncontemporaneous Lawmaking: Can the 110th Senate Enact a Bill Passed by the 109th House?, 16 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 331 (2007),; Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl, Response, Against Mix-and-Match Lawmaking, 16 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 349 (2007),; Seth Barrett Tillman, Defending the (Not So) Indefensible: A Reply to Professor Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl, 16 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 363 (2007),



D.C. Circuit to Wirt and Daugherty: Drop Dead

Your humble blogger is pretty much speechless after the D.C. Circuit’s sweeping decision today in the Noel Canning recess appointments case. In light of the oral argument, it is not all that surprising that the panel held that the Recess Appointments Clause only permits inter-session recess appointments. But I am pretty stunned (although admittedly this was foreshadowed in the oral argument as well) that it also held that the Clause only permits recess appointments for vacancies that actually occur during a recess. Why it chose to reach the latter issue (when, as Judge Griffith points out in his partial concurrence, it did not need to) is a matter of speculation. Here’s mine: to guarantee that the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Further analysis of the decision will have to wait awhile. But for the moment let me point the following passage from Judge Sentelle’s opinion:

The Clause sets a time limit on recess appointments by providing that those commissions shall expire “at the End of their [the Senate’s] next Session.” Again, the Framers have created a dichotomy. The appointment may be made in “the Recess,” but it ends at the end of the next “Session.” The natural interpretation of the Clause is that the Constitution is noting a difference between “the Recess” and the “Session.” Either the Senate is in session, or it is in the recess.

 (emphasis added). For reasons I have previously stated at interminable length, this is clearly correct.

Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part II)

This brings us to the second pillar of the anti-entrenchment position, which might be called the “quasi-constitutive” argument. Professors McGinnis and Rappaport, who pioneered this argument, explain:

If a legislature could pass a measure that would prevent a successor from taking action, then that measure would function as a constitutional restraint on the future legislature. For example, if the Senate passed a rule prohibiting tax increases, that would function exactly as if it were a constitutional prohibition on tax increases. . . . Because the Constitution permits amendments only under the procedures in Article V and not simply through legislative enactments, the legislature does not have the power to bind itself in the future.

J. McGinnis & M. Rappaport, The Constitutionality of Legislative Supermajority Requirements: A Defense, 105 Yale L. J. 483, 505-06 (1995).

The McGinnis/Rappaport argument can be somewhat hard to understand because, as the title of their article indicates, they defend the authority of a legislative body to adopt rules that prevent a simple majority from exercising legislative power that it would otherwise have under the Constitution. This is acceptable, they maintain, so long as the majority retains the ultimate power to amend or waive the rules.

So, if I understand their argument correctly, it actually would be permissible for the Senate to adopt a rule prohibiting any tax increases, notwithstanding the language quoted above. The constitutional infirmity would exist if the Senate prohibited repeal of this rule (or required a supermajority to repeal it). So long as the majority has the ability to waive or amend the rule, however, McGinnis and Rappaport see no constitutional violation.

Still, it is an open question what this actually means. For example, suppose a measure to raise taxes is introduced in the Senate and a point of order is raised that the measure violates the (hypothetical) Senate rule. According to McGinnis and Rappaport, the point of order could not be overcome by the argument that the rule is unconstitutional. But it seems that supporters of the measure could argue that (1) they are entitled to a vote on whether or not to waive the rule and (2) in the absence of such a vote, the rule is unconstitutionally entrenched. If this is true, it is not clear why McGinnis and Rappaport would so vigorously defend the constitutionality of supermajority rules because it would seem that such rules would be largely meaningless.

Fortunately, McGinnis and Rappaport appear to recognize this problem in their 1995 article. They explicitly distinguish rules that prohibit a majority from changing or waiving an existing rule, on the one hand, and rules that prevent the majority from obtaining a final vote on changing or waiving the rule, on the other. The Senate rule allowing filibusters of proposed rule changes, they make clear, falls into the latter category:

If the Senate voted on whether to change the cloture rule, only a simple majority would be needed to change it. It is true that an attempt to change the cloture rule might be filibustered, but that is another matter. The historical and structural argument presented above does not demonstrate that a majority must at all times be able to obtain a vote on all measures that it desires.

105 Yale L. J. at 507 (emphasis added).

Continue reading “Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part II)”

Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part I)

The anti-entrenchment critique of Senate rules rests on two pillars. The first, which I will consider here, is an analogy to a line of cases holding that a later statute trumps an earlier one, even if the earlier statute purported to be entrenched against repeal. Thus, for example, a statute which establishes a particular location as a “permanent capital” would not prevent the legislature from later moving the capital. See Ohio Life Ins. & Trust Co. v. Debolt, 57 U.S. 416 (1853). As the Supreme Court explained (in language quoted by the December 12 letter): “[N]o one legislature can, by its own act, disarm their successors of any of the powers or rights of sovereignty confided by the people to the legislative body.” Id. at 421. The argument is that a legislative rule which prevents a simple majority from acting similarly disarms the legislative body of “the powers or rights of sovereignty.”

At the outset it should be noted that the line of cases in question is entirely related to statutes; there is no case suggesting, even in dicta, this principle applies to legislative rules. To the extent that the courts have spoken about entrenchment of legislative rules, it is to affirm that the matter is one for legislative, not judicial, cognizance. Thus, in dismissing the Common Cause lawsuit (which challenged both the filibuster and its entrenchment), Judge Sullivan noted the absence of “any [constitutional] language that expressly limits the Senate’s power to determine its rules, including when and how debate is brought to a close. . . . Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the Presentment Clause, the Quorum Clause, or any other constitutional provision explicitly requires that a simple majority is all that is required to close debate and enact legislation.”

Continue reading “Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part I)”

Entrenchment and the Academic “Consensus”

The December 12 letter claims “the overwhelming consensus of the academic community [is] that no pre-existing internal procedural rule can limit the authority of each new Senate to determine by majority vote its own rules of procedure.” Although this statement is closer to being true than the letter’s assertions about Senate continuity and precedent, it is still exaggerated and inaccurate in important respects.

First, while it is true that a number of scholars have expressed general agreement with the anti-entrenchment critique of the Senate rules, I think it is a bit of a stretch to call this an “overwhelming consensus.” It depends in part what one means by the “academic community.” Among those who have rejected the anti-entrenchment position are the current head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Virginia Seitz, former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove, and noted congressional legal scholar Michael Gerhardt. In addition, two legal scholars, Adrian Vermuele and Eric Posner, have argued against the anti-entrenchment position even as applied to statutes (they seem to assume that Senate rules are validly entrenched, although this is not the main focus of their argument).

Second, there are important differences among those who accept the anti-entrenchment critique. These differences may be critical to how the Senate should address attempts to change the rules with the support of a simple majority. As we have seen with respect to Professor Chereminsky, sometimes even a particular scholar does not seem to have reached an “overwhelming consensus” in his own mind as to how the Senate should proceed.

Third, the December 12 is flatly wrong in asserting that scholars have endorsed some special authority of a “new Senate” to change the rules. As far as I know, the only scholarship to support this position is the 1997 article by Professors Chereminsky and Fisk. As I will show in my next post, their contention in this regard appears to rest on a misunderstanding of their own argument.

Senate Rules from the Internal Point of View

As I mentioned in my last post, Professor Chemerinsky’s description of the 1975 Senate vote in sustain Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s point of order changed slightly from his 1997 article to his 2005 article. In the former he said that the vote “establish[ed] that a majority of the Senate would abide by the supermajority requirements for amending Senate rules,” while in the latter he said that the vote “establish[ed] that the majority of the Senate at that time favored the supermajority requirement for amending the Senate Rules.”

What is interesting is that neither statement describes the Senate’s vote as a legal ruling. According to Vice President Rockefeller’s ruling on Mansfield’s point of order, the question presented to the Senate was whether invoking cloture on Senator Mondale’s motion to amend the rules was subject to a supermajority vote under Rule XXII, as Mansfield contended, or whether a simple majority had the constitutional authority to invoke cloture, as supporters of Mondale’s motion argued. By upholding Mansfield’s point of order, the Senate clearly understood it was resolving this legal question.

A lawyer (or Senate parliamentarian) might be expected to describe the Senate’s action something like this: “The Senate rejected a constitutional challenge to the continuing validity of Rule XXII as applied to a motion to amend the rules in a new Congress.” Or, as the late Senator Robert Byrd wrote in his history of the Senate: “by this action, as the Rules Committee’s published history stated, the Senate ‘erased the precedent of majority cloture established two weeks before, and reaffirmed the continuous nature of the Senate rules.’” See R. Arenberg & R. Dove, Defending the Filibuster 131 (2012).

To understand the difference between these types of statements and those made by Chemerinsky, one might consult the British legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart, who distinguishes between the “external” and “internal” points of view with regard to a legal system: “When a social group has certain rules of conduct, . . . it is possible to be concerned with the rules, either merely as an observer who does not himself accept them, or as a member of the group which accepts and uses them as guides to conduct.” H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law 89 (1961).  Even within the external point of view, there are different gradations. For example, “the observer may, without accepting the rules himself, assert that the group accepts the rules, and thus may from outside refer to the way in which they are concerned with them from the internal point of view.” Id. (emphasis in original). Alternatively, the observer may be “content merely to record the regularities of observable behavior in which conformity with the rules partly consists and those further regularities, in the form of hostile reaction, reproofs or punishments, with which deviations from the rules are met.” Id.

Continue reading “Senate Rules from the Internal Point of View”