Week In News: A Rocky Start To Obama's Second

Less than a week into his second term, President Obama has already met with resistance over procedural matters, such as his use of the recess appointment to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. Weekends on All Things Considered host Robert Smith speaks with James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

Well, it's been the first week of President Obama's second term, and I think we can kind of figure out how this is going to go. President Obama started with a progressive message on Inauguration Day. Republicans got into a defensive crouch almost immediately. And James Fallows of The Atlantic is here to sort out the fallout. Hello, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Robert.

SMITH: So lay out the situation for us, the battle lines being drawn.

FALLOWS: Some of the battle lines are the familiar ones over taxes and spending and foreign policy and all of that. But I think there's a different kind of battle that's beginning to emerge, which is essentially about the proper rules of engagement for a political competition, discussions about the filibuster and about the recent court ruling on recess appointments and even in a proposal to change the way the electoral college works.

SMITH: Well, it makes total sense. I mean, both sides have figured out they are not going to convince anyone of anything. So if you know that's how the game is played, changing the rules is really your best option to win.

FALLOWS: That certainly has been the case at certain eras in American politics where that kind of standoff has occurred. You do see a lot of the action shifting to these procedural issues during the 1960s, especially in the South. Part of - a lot of the battle over the civil rights was for rules of voting and rules of political engagement, back in Reconstruction the time of Andrew Jackson, through the Gilded Age and progressive reforms. So this is a recurring theme in American life.

SMITH: So let's go over a few of the points that you mentioned. The federal appeals court ruling, which unanimously said that the president overstepped his authority when he made recess appointments on the National Labor Relations Board. Now, this is where the president circumvents the regular Senate confirmation process. He puts in his own nominees. What was the problem with this?

FALLOWS: Presidents for a very long time have assumed the Constitution gave them the legal power to name people to post if the Senate was not in session. And it's originally came into the Constitution because the Senate back in the olden days would go away for quite a long time.

SMITH: In horse and buggy.

FALLOWS: Exactly. So it could take weeks or months to convene people from up and down the East Coast. In recent years, there was a trick that the Democrats under Harry Reid began using under President George W. Bush, and that was the comment of these pro forma tricky sessions where they convened and then almost immediately adjourned so that the Senate would never technically be in recess.

And so recent presidents, including President Obama, have said: This isn't a real recess. I'm going to go ahead and make the appointment. This panel of the D.C. Appeals Court essentially said: No, that's not the case. You can't do it. It's too much chicanery. It's been a long-standing practice. And if this ruling stands, it will be quite a change.

SMITH: Well, another story you mentioned earlier about quibbling over the rules involved the GOP Electoral College plan. And I love talking about this one because I picture Republicans in a room looking at a map of the last election and going: I got a great idea.

FALLOWS: Well, you know, the proposal being aired in Virginia and Michigan and Ohio and a few other states is to allot each state's electoral votes - not on a winner-take-all basis - but you do it congressional district by congressional district. Now, this seems as if it would be closer to the popular vote model. But actually, congressional districts are now heavily skewed to overrepresent Republicans. More voters voted for Democratic House candidates than Republican ones during this last election, but the Republicans still have a 30-odd vote majority in the House of Representatives.

So if this scheme had been in effect during the past election, President Obama would still have had a several million vote margin in the popular vote, but Mitt Romney would've been our president.

SMITH: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Robert.

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