Before the Circuit Court went all activist in the Canning case, everyone thought the question was defining what counted as a “recess.” On that issue, the Supreme Court had a clear answer today: “For purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says that it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business.”

That’s a nominal defeat for President Barack Obama, who had claimed that an extended recess broken up by several pro forma sessions is still a recess.

The history here is that a Senate with a Democratic majority used pro forma sessions every three days in 2007-2008 to prevent President George W. Bush from making recess appointments, and Bush didn’t contest the maneuver. Then, in 2011, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives tried the same workaround, which forced the Senate to stay “in session” because of the constitutional provision that when one chamber is in session, the other cannot adjourn for “more than three days.”

The Senate-initiated attempt to block recess appointments seemed dicey, but probably reasonable. The House-initiated obstruction, however, was constitutionally noxious. After all, the House has no constitutional role in presidential nominations. By refusing to recess, the Senate essentially is enforcing its role in advise and consent. That changes when lawmakers hold pro forma sessions instead of “real” sessions and enforce that role at their convenience. When the House does it, however, that chamber is being inserted into matters it has no business being involving in.

The court didn’t differentiate those two very different situations today, but Associate Justice Stephen Breyer reminded everyone that there is another option for combating the House: The Constitution allows the president to act if the two chambers cannot agree on adjournment. Although I argued strongly at the time that Democrats shouldn’t allow the House to veto nominations — and that therefore Obama should have acted — I believed that the unused Article II power of adjournment was the safest constitutional ground.

As it turns out, the House option is pretty much a moot question since Senate Democrats pushed through the nuclear option, which allows nominations to go through with a simple majority vote. The House option for obstruction was relevant only in cases in which the president and Senate majority were from one party, and the House majority and a Senate minority large enough to kill nominations by filibuster were from the other party. Given simple majority confirmation, the House no longer has the power to obstruct. I suppose it’s still true that a president and the Senate majority might prefer a simple recess appointment to going through the hurdles of confirmation, even if it’s guaranteed to happen, but that’s not as big a deal as the attempt to nullify entire agencies by the House in conjunction with a Senate minority.

To be sure, the Senate will still have the ability to refuse to confirm any nominee and to prevent recess appointments. But that was always going to be the case; the only thing at stake here (on the narrow question of what counts as a recess) was how inconvenient it was going to be for the Senate to do so. In the long term, odds are that future legislation will be written more carefully to prevent nullification by obstructing nominations, now that Republicans have revealed that such a weapon is available and will be used. Constitutionally, none of that is a big deal.

To get into the details, the question of what counts as a “recess” is complicated because the Constitution doesn’t offer a definition, and usage now and then is ambiguous. Both Breyer and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia discussed two meanings (recess between two sessions of Congress and recess within one session). But, in fact, there are three usages: everyone in and around Congress knows that “recess” can mean both short periods when Congress is out for a weekend, the night, or even lunch, or it can mean the longer “district work periods” that last for a week (with surrounding weekends) or longer. Without explaining it very well and therefore opening himself up to Scalia’s claims that it’s just an arbitrary ruling, Breyer is basically attempting to follow that perfectly common-sense, ordinary usage distinction. That is the correct way to go; it’s the only option that really conforms to Senate practice.

That leaves the question about the pro forma sessions. Breyer puts a fair amount of weight on the ability of the Senate to transact business (by unanimous consent, or presumably by a voice vote if it wasn’t challenged) during these sessions. That’s true, but it’s also true that everyone talks and acts as if the Senate is in a normal recess during those periods. So the court has erred, but it’s a close call, and relatively little is at stake in this portion of the decision, especially in the post-nuclear era.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.