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OLC's Skillful Defense of President Obama's Recess Appointments and Its Possible Aftershocks

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The Justice Department's release of on Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion regarding President Obama's recess appointments power is a welcome display of public accountability. However one analyzes the bottom line, the opinion is a model of the genre. It is thorough in its analysis, candid about points that are novel or untested, and serious about engaging what it acknowledges to be substantial counterarguments. This is evidence of an OLC that is doing its job.

For separation of powers aficionados, what ought to most interesting is the OLC opinion's primary line of attack. I had earlier defended the president's right to make recess appointments even during a three-day recess -- an argument that, in a footnote, the OLC opinion holds in reserve. OLC's main conclusion, however, is that the recent pro forma sessions were of no constitutional significance in interrupting what was effectively a 20-day recess. OLC thus followed earlier Attorney General Opinions that had judged the concept of "recess" functionally, by whether "in a practical sense the Senate is in session so that its advice and consent can be obtained."

The OLC analysis is arguably the more institutionally modest position because it is better grounded in historical precedent. Its functional approach also resonates with Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit opinions dealing with a structurally similar question, namely, when does Congress "by their adjournment" prevent the president from returning a veto message, thus triggering the president's power of "pocket veto" -- i.e., the power to prevent an enacted measure from becoming law without an actual veto if, on the tenth day following the measure's presentation to the president, Congress is not in session to receive the president's message. In the 1938 case of Wright v. United States, the Supreme Court held that, even when the Senate was concededly in a three-day recess, it had not prevented the president from vetoing enacted bills because the Secretary of the Senate remained available to receive the veto message. The OLC opinion, like Wright and, even more conspicuously, Wright 's D.C. Circuit progeny, seeks a constitutional reading that most pragmatically facilitates the system of checks and balances by respecting the core powers of each political branch.

(Interestingly, Professor Laurence Tribe had earlier offered yet a different analysis -- that the Constitution confers "an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes," and that pro forma Senate sessions during what would otherwise appear to be a substantial recess could not defeat the president's power when such sessions "manifestly" served no purpose other than to serve as a "transparently obstructionist tactic.")

As much as I admire the restraint and thoughtfulness of the OLC opinion, however, I have only a limited hope that it will put a stop to interbranch game-playing. Perhaps the toughest point for OLC to counter was that, during two pro forma sessions -- one last summer and one this winter -- the Senate actually did pass legislation by unanimous consent, thus seeming to be "in business." OLC's counter to this was rather technical, namely, that the scheduling orders during which the pro forma sessions were held explicitly provided that there was to be "no business conducted." "In our judgment," the opinion states, "the President may properly rely on the public pronouncements of the Senate that it will not conduct business (including action on nominations), in determining whether the Senate remains in recess, regardless of whether the Senate has disregarded its own orders on prior occasions."

That's fair enough, but let's imagine a few scenarios. What if, for example, the Republicans take the Senate in 2012, but President Obama is reelected? It seems quite likely that the pro forma ritual will continue, but with the Senate modifying its scheduling orders to make the possibility of doing business seem more plausible. Perhaps the pro forma sessions will occur daily, rather than every three days.

Or, imagine, as is less likely, that the Democrats retain the Senate but President Obama loses the White House. The Democrats, eager to prevent controversial nominees from getting recess appointments, could well try to prevent them the old-fashioned way -- by actually scheduling floor action and voting them down. Will we then see Republicans using the filibuster to prevent such votes, not in the hope that the Senate will ever approve the nominees in question, but to keep the nominations alive and the vacancies open, so President Obama's Republican successor may appoint them during a recess?

In our analyses of President Obama's recent appointments, both Professor Tribe and I stressed that the appointments were limited to vacancies that, if they persisted, would prevent the agencies involved from actually executing the laws they were charged with enforcing. Of course, there is no guarantee that any successor to President Obama (or even President Obama himself on another occasion) will observe such restraint.

And, on top of all of this, the president seems to have his own textually explicit nuclear option. He is authorized by Article II to adjourn Congress unilaterally "to such time as he shall think proper." If courts interpret the Recess Appointments Clause to require adjournments of, say, ten days or more in order to be triggered, there is no obvious bar in the text to the president adjourning Congress for ten days to accomplish precisely that end.

A British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, famously observed: "Every political constitution in which different bodies share the supreme power is only enabled to exist by the forbearance of those among whom this power is distributed." Under our Constitution, of course, it is "the People" who hold the supreme power. But we have effectively delegated the exercise of government power to a set of partly autonomous, partly interdependent institutions to which we have allocated both authorities and dependencies in the hope of effective governance. Yet, "forbearance of those among whom . . . power is distributed" is not much in evidence these days. As much as I applaud the president's recent actions and the skillful defense OLC has offered, I thus find it difficult not to worry about the aftershocks.