Behind the Senate’s back

    On Jan. 14, President Bush outraged Democrats and discomfited some
    institution-minded Republicans when he bypassed the Senate confirmation
    process and made 17 recess appointments to posts in his administration.

    Some of the positions were not particularly significant _ various
    advisory boards, for example _ but others truly were, especially Gordon
    England’s recess appointment to be deputy secretary of defense.

    And two of the appointees _ one to head the bureau of Immigration and
    Customs Enforcement, the other to assistant secretary of state for
    refugees _ were controversial and may well have been voted down if the
    Senate had been given a chance.

    The recess appointment is a
    constitutional power allowing presidents to staff their administrations
    when Congress is out of town. It dates back to the earliest days of the
    republic when distances were vast, travel slow and congressional
    sessions brief.

    The appointments last until the end of the
    “next” congressional session. In the case of the most recent recess
    appointees, the Democrats argue that the appointments expire at the end
    of this year. But the White House contends that because the Senate
    returned last month for a one-day pro forma session, the appointees can
    stay until the end of 2007.

    Senate Democrats contend that Bush
    was ducking the normal confirmation process. Maybe so, but while not
    what the Founding Fathers intended, what he did was within the rules.
    The appropriateness of his actions and how long the appointees stay are
    subject to debate.

    But partisan politics aside, there is a
    larger systemic problem here _ the Senate confirmation process is too
    slow, onerous and complex. It is a bipartisan problem. President Bill
    Clinton also resorted to recess appointments out of frustration.

    The now-disbanded Presidential Appointee Initiative charted the length
    of time it took the Senate to confirm nominees in the first year of a
    president’s term, and found a worsening problem _ for Bush it was 180
    days; for Clinton, 174 days, and for Reagan, 142.

    And, it has to
    be said, the problem is largely of the Senate’s own making _ short
    workweeks that make it tough to schedule hearings and votes, allowing
    individual senators too much leeway in delaying nominees and a general
    institutional dilatoriness.

    Good government demands that the
    confirmation process, as the PAI urged, be simple, fast and fair.
    Recess appointments should be reserved for emergencies.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)