The US Supreme Court today limited a president's power to make recess appointments when the White House and the Senate are controlled by opposite parties, scaling back a presidential authority as old as the republic.
The case arose from a political dispute between President Obama and Senate Republicans, who claimed he had no authority to put three people on the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012 when the Senate was out of town.
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He used a president's power, granted by the Constitution, to "fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate." But the Republicans said the Senate was not in recess at the time the appointments were made, because every three days a senator went into the chamber, gaveled it to order, and then immediately called a recess.
By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court agreed that the Senate was not in recess, holding that it's up to both houses of Congress to define when they're in session or in recess. As a result of the decision, the Senate can frustrate a president's ability to make recess appointments simply by holding periodic pro forma sessions, a tactic used in recent years by both political parties.
The question, the court said, is whether the Senate had the capacity to act. It found that during the recess at issue, the court did have that power.
The stakes were no longer as high as they were when the case first came to the Supreme Court, given that the Senate has now agreed that a president's nominations need only 51 votes for confirmation.
It remained an important constitutional issue, even though the reasons for recess appointments have changed. In the nation's early days, when Congress was in session less than half the year, it made sense for a president to have the power to fill a vacancy in order to keep the government going before Congress came back to town months later.
But recent presidents have used the recess appointment power to make an end run around a Senate that refused to confirm controversial nominees. That use of the power is all but dead.
First published June 26 2014, 7:03 AM
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering the Justice Department and the U.S. Supreme Court since March 1993. Williams was also a key reporter on the Microsoft anti-trust trial and Judge Jackson's decision.
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Prior to joining NBC, Williams served as a press official on Capitol Hill for many years. In 1986 he joined the Washington, D.C. staff of then Congressman Dick Cheney as press secretary and a legislative assistant. In 1989, when Cheney was named Assistant Secretary of Defense, Williams was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. While in that position, Williams was named Government Communicator of the Year in 1991 by the National Association of Government Communicators.
A native of Casper, Wyo. and a 1974 graduate of Stanford University, Williams was a reporter and news director at KTWO-TV and Radio in Casper from 1974 to 1985. Working with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, for which he served as a member of its board of directors, he successfully lobbied the Wyoming Supreme Court to permit broadcast coverage of its proceedings and twice sued Wyoming judges over pre-trial exclusion of reporters from the courtroom. For these efforts, he received a First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.