Commentary Magazine


The President Versus the Constitution

Conflicts between the legislative and executive branches are as old as the republic. But in recent years, the growing power of the presidency has added new urgency to these issues. That’s the context of the decision of House Speaker John Boehner to sue the president for overstepping his authority. It’s also the backdrop to the interesting constitutional arguments in play in today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the president’s power to make recess appointments.

Democrats may have a point when they claim Boehner’s lawsuit is more of a stunt than a policy initiative. It is doubtful that the courts will force the president’s hand when it comes to bypassing Congress on immigration by selective enforcement of laws or by the use of executive orders when the House and the Senate fail to pass the legislation he wants. Even if the case does go forward, the odds are it will not be resolved until after President Obama leaves office in January 2017.

But Boehner is right to stand up for the Constitution and a system of checks and balances and against Obama’s notions of an imperial presidency that increasingly seem aimed at allowing him to govern alone without Congress.

Thus, the Supreme Court’s willingness in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning to put some limits on the president’s power to make recess appointments is an encouraging sign that the march to one-person rule can be checked if not altogether halted.

As our John Steele Gordon noted earlier, the practice of allowing recess appointments, including those for vacancies that arise while Congress is in session, is not authorized by the Constitution but has become routine in the last century. While properly ruling that President Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were illegal, the majority of the court sought to curb what it believes to be an excessive use of the practice. The decision held that congressional breaks of less than 10 days could not be interpreted as being sufficient to justify the president invoking his recess appointment power. That’s reasonable, but as Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his concurring opinion, by also saying that such appointments would be legal even if they came in the middle of an existing session, the court has read the law in such a way as to still leave the president far too much leeway to abuse the Constitution. The Constitution only authorizes the executive to make such an appointment when a vacancy comes up during an actual recess, not every such opening including ones that date back to times when Congress is in session.

As Scalia writes:

The notion that the Constitution empowers the President to make unilateral appointments every time the Senate takes a half-hour lunch break is so absurd as to be self-refuting. But that, in the majority’s view, is what the text authorizes.

Though he concurred with the majority that the NLRB appointments were illegal, Scalia rightly points out that such unilateral actions by the president could only be approved under extraordinary circumstances. But no such circumstances applied to this case or, for that matter, just about any other recess appointment made by any president in recent decades.

It should be remembered that the concept of recess appointments stems from the political realities of government in pre-20th century America. With a few exceptions during periods of national emergency, prior to the Great Depression Congress met for only a few months every year. Recesses then were not matters of a few days or weeks but several months. Even when a special session of Congress was called, travel in the horse-and-buggy era meant that it was simply impossible for the legislative branch to assemble quickly. Vacancies that arose during this period could, if forced to wait for the Senate to exercise its right to advise and consent to appointments, mean the government simply couldn’t function.

The old schedule in which a newly elected Congress would not meet until the December of the following year and new presidents not be inaugurated until the middle of March is consigned to the dustbin of history. But so, too, should the practice of allowing the president to simply use brief breaks in what is, for all intents and purposes, a nearly continuous congressional session to make appointments that the Senate has already effectively rejected.

Under the ruling in today’s case, so long as either congressional body is in the hands of the party not in control of the White House, recess appointments may be impossible since pro forma sessions will prevent the president from arguing, as Obama did, that the legislature really is not meeting. But, as John Steel Gordon points out, the president will still have a loophole that would allow him to effectively prorogue Congress like an 17th century English monarch.

All this points out the necessity for those who care about the Constitution—be they Republicans or Democrats—to stand up against a lawless presidency intent on one-person rule. Though Democrats may think they will hold the White House for the foreseeable future, they must consider that three years from now they may be faced with a Republican president. That president will, like all of his or her predecessors including Obama, probably suddenly find themselves in love with the idea of an imperial presidency that they disdained when someone of the other party was in power.

If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked and Obama’s predecessors are allowed to build on his precedent, then there is no telling how long the Constitution, as we know it, will survive. Presidents who enforce only the laws they like and use executive orders to make laws or make appointments the Congress has already rejected are little different from kings and queens.

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