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)