House and Senate members quickly left town yesterday, starting a month-long recess that will keep lawmakers out of DC until after Labor Day. Under the circumstances, though, “recess” is probably the wrong word to use.
If this were a literal congressional recess, President Obama would have the option of making recess appointments, and given the number of executive branch and judicial vacancies created by Senate Republican obstructionism, the White House would have ample motivation to put this presidential power to good use.
That’s why GOP lawmakers have ensured their recess isn’t a real recess.
Following the House, the Senate will hold a series of “pro forma” sessions over the next month, effectively blocking President Barack Obama from making any appointments during Congress’ August recess.
That means Obama won’t be able to seat his pick to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, whose nomination Republicans have vowed to oppose until Obama makes changes watering down the agency’s authority.
After passing the debt limit legislation on Monday, House leaders announced they would hold pro forma sessions through August, a procedural move that forced the Senate to follow suit. The Constitution requires that for either chamber to take more than a three-day break, the other chamber must give its approval.
Every Tuesday and Friday for the rest of the month, someone will show up in the House and Senate chambers, bang a gavel, look around, and then go home. Republicans believe this is necessary, of course, to prevent the president from filling vacancies that need to be filled with qualified officials who’d be confirmed if given up-or-down votes.
Also note, congressional Republicans are determined to prevent President Obama from being able to exercise this power for the indefinite future, regardless of the seriousness of the vacancies or the extent of the Senate GOP’s obstructionism.
The White House has been under a fair amount of pressure from the left for months to make as many recess appointments as possible. It’s unclear whether the West Wing is inclined to use the president’s prerogative or not, but so long as these Republican tactics continue, it’s largely a moot point — Obama can’t make recess appointments if there’s no recess.
Postscript: Back in June, Jonathan Bernstein made the case that Dems may have some legal options, albeit unpredictable ones, for circumventing the GOP’s recess blockade. It’s worth checking out.