President Obama made a brilliant political move yesterday and boy did it get Republicans in Congress fired up. Ignoring the pro forma sessions, which have technically kept the Senate in session, Obama made 4 recess appointments that the Senate has held up for months.
Recess appointments? Who cares….everyone makes recess appointments. This is true, yet since 2007 the Senate, first under the leadership of Harry Reid, has found a way to circumvent the President’s ability to make recess appointments. In order to stop President George W. Bush from making controversial recess appointments, Reid held pro forma sessions in the Senate every three days. This process kept the Senate technically in session every three days so Bush could not make recess appointments because the legal standard has been that Senate must be out of session for more than three days before the President can make a recess appointment.
What is a pro forma session? Every three days one Senator would come into the chamber, usually a Senator close by from Virginia, Maryland, or Delaware. The Senator would gavel the Senate in and seconds later would gavel the Senate out and would then go home. That’s it! No business to discuss. No legislative work. Nothing. The whole point of these sessions was to circumvent the constitutional Presidential power to make recess appointments.
Since 2007, the use of pro forma sessions to keep the Senate in session has become the norm. Three years into Bush’s second term, he had made 61 recess appointments (that does not include appointments made during his first term). Similarly, Obama has made 28 recess appointments. This demonstrates how successful the pro forma tactic has been.
That is until yesterday. Obama ignored the pro forma session status, and made Richard Cordray the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He also made three additional appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. This move has Republicans, who argued against the use of pro forma sessions to block recess appointments during Bush’s second term, up in arms!
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said about the decision, “What the President did today sets a terrible precedent that could allow any future President to completely cut the Senate out of the confirmation process, appointing his nominees immediately after sending their names up to Congress.”
House Leader John Boehner made a similar statement. “This is an extraordinary and entirely unprecedented power grab by President Obama that defies centuries of practice and the legal advice of his own Justice Department. The precedent that would be set by this cavalier action would have a devastating effect on the checks and balances that are enshrined in our constitution.”
An article in Politico put it this way, “In one fell swoop, Obama managed to tap into voter frustration with Washington, distance himself from an unpopular Congress, buck up the liberal base and reassert himself as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt, fighting for a “fair deal” for the middle class. He even stole some of the spotlight from Republicans a day after the Iowa caucuses.”
Politico makes a great point. Obama was able to do what Bush wanted to do because Congressional approval ratings are at historical lows, while his approval rating is on an upswing. This is mostly due to the payroll tax cut battle that took place over the Christmas break. President Bush was in the opposite position. He was facing spiraling downward approval ratings himself, while Congressional approval ratings were up. Bush wanted to ignore the pro forma sessions to make recess appointments, but he couldn’t. Obama did it because the deck is stacked in his favor.
People are tired of the Do-Nothing Congress. President Obama knows this and is using it to his full advantage. This was a brilliant political move on his part. Let the games begin for 2012!