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It's tempting to view this next story as just a window into the mechanics of the Senate, but in reality it's a big constitutional fight involving the balance of power between the president and Congress. At issue is whether the president's power to make temporary appointments during a Senate recess can be curtailed by the use of super-short Senate sessions where no business is conducted.
Now, the third branch of government is getting involved. The Supreme Court hears arguments today. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: From mid-December 2011 until January 20th of 2012, during the holidays, the Senate did not meet as it usually does. Instead, it formally convened and adjourned multiple times. Indeed, each time it adjourned, it stipulated that when it reconvened three days later, no business would be conducted. Here's a typical session on January 6, 2012, with a nearly empty chamber.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE SESSION)
TOTENBERG: That was the whole thing, 30 seconds. But the legality of the session is the heart of the dispute before the Supreme Court today. The president contends that these sessions were, in essence, fakes, a legal pretense, that in fact the Senate was really in recess. Therefore during that period he nominated three people as recess appointees to fill long-vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board. They would serve until the end of the following year or longer if confirmed.
Part of the reason President Obama used the recess appointment mechanism was that Senate Republicans had dragged their feet on so many appointments that the board charged with enforcing labor law didn't have a quorum to do its job. When the recess appointees took their seats and began hearing labor cases, a soda pop bottling company named Noel Canning challenged an adverse ruling, contending that the labor board's members were unconstitutionally appointed.
The company won in the lower court and today at the Supreme Court, backed by 44 Republican senators, the company will argue that the Senate makes its own rules, that the Senate was not in recess, and that therefore the president had no power to make recess appointments.
Article II of the Constitution says, quote: The President shall have the power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, and that the appointment shall last until the end of the next session. Now, as Texas A&M Professor George Edwards points out that, when the framers wrote the Constitution, there was transportation by horse and carriage, not planes, trains or automobiles.
GEORGE EDWARDS: Until the 20th century, the Senate was in session less than half the time, so there would be substantial periods when the Senate was not there to advise and consent to a presidential nomination. And the Founding Fathers didn't want there to be gaps in the administration of policy, so they provided for recess appointments.
TOTENBERG: Today, in contrast, senators can come to Washington quickly, but the nature of government is also dramatically different.
EDWARDS: The founders could not have conceived of government on the scale that we have it today.
TOTENBERG: Again, Professor Edwards.
EDWARDS: Government is much larger now. There are many more people in appointed positions and so many more vacancies occur.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, since the mid-1800s there have been more than 600 recess appointments to civilian jobs, and many, many hundreds more in the military. Even some Supreme Court justices were first recess-appointed. Chief Justice Earl Warren was recess-appointed after the sitting chief justice died in September of 1953. Warren served for six months before being confirmed in March of 1954.
In modern times, three appeals courts have upheld the president's power to make midsession recess appointments - that is, within one year of a two year congressional term. But in this case, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reached a contrary conclusion, siding with the Noel Canning Company, which is represented by lawyer Noel Francisco.
NOEL FRANCISCO: These are very significant appointments, which is precisely why, for offices like this, the primary method that the Constitution requires is Senate advice and consent. That's precisely why the recess appointments power was meant to be a narrow emergency power.
TOTENBERG: But White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler counters that the way Senate Republicans managed to keep the Senate in session was by using a legal fiction.
KATHRYN RUEMMLER: It was not conducting any business and did not intend to conduct any business during those pro forma sessions. It didn't serve some other function of the Senate. It was solely employed, and members of the Senate have been quite clear about that, for the purpose of preventing the president from making recess appointments.
TOTENBERG: In making these recess appointments, she says, the president was carrying out his duty.
RUEMMLER: It is not a bypass of the Senate confirmation process. It is a way for the president, again, by express authority in the Constitution, to ensure that laws are faithfully executed.
TOTENBERG: Something that she says could not be done if many top federal agency positions were allowed to remain unfilled. Ruemmler contends that if the Senate Republicans prevail here, the recess appointment power will likely be dead for all practical purposes. The Senate, after all, could eat up every recess with pro forma sessions to prevent presidential appointments. Lawyer Noel Francisco readily concedes the point.
FRANCISCO: The fact of the matter is that in today's day and age, the Senate is virtually never incapable of providing advice and consent, given modern transportation and modern communications. So yes, the Senate can render itself perpetually available to provide advice and consent, and if it does so, then the president is not empowered to make a recess appointment.
TOTENBERG: There's a second question in today's case. When does the vacancy have to arise? Those opposing President Obama contend that when the founders said that the president can make recess appointments for vacancies that may happen during the recess, that it meant the president can fill vacancies that occur during the recess, not those that existed at the time of the recess.
The Court of Appeals agreed on that point too, creating such a narrow time window as to make recess appointments practically impossible. For now, it is President Obama who wants the ability to make recess appointments, but it will not always be thus, nor has it been in the past.
Indeed, as Professor Edwards observes, recess appointments began growing when government did in the 20th century.
EDWARDS: Particularly since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan made a number of intra-recess appointments.
TOTENBERG: Edwards notes that in a time of political polarization, the Senate and the president both are looking for political advantage and often resort to what seems to be arcane procedures. Now the Supreme Court will weigh in on the question of recess appointments. On one side of the argument is the original intent of the founders.
On the other is the pragmatic question of how to run a large modern government and how that has been accomplished for the last century. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.