In 2011, the Noel Canning company, which bottles soft drinks in Yakima, Wash., was negotiating a labor contract with Teamsters Local 760. The union says it and the company reached a verbal agreement. The company disagrees. An administrative law judge sided with the union. On Feb. 8, after Obama’s disputed appointments, the NLRB upheld that decision and asked a federal court to enforce it. Noel Canning is asking the court to declare that the NLRB’s intervention in the dispute was unlawful because the board lacked a quorum until Obama made the recess appointments, which were invalid because the Senate was not in recess.
In support of the company, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and 41 members of his caucus have filed a brief arguing that the recess appointments “eviscerated” two of the Senate’s constitutional powers — to “determine the rules of its proceedings” and to reject presidential appointments.
The Recess Clause says the president’s power extends only to vacancies that “happen” while the Senate is in recess. This does not describe the NLRB vacancies — or many vacancies filled by recess appointments by many presidents since George Washington made the first ones in 1789. It does, however, describe the problem the Framers addressed: Until the Civil War, travel was slow and arduous, so Senate sessions usually lasted only three to six months. The Framers wrote the Recess Clause to give presidents very limited authority to fill important posts, while preserving the Senate’s absolute veto over presidential nominations.
For more than a century, it was generally accepted that recess appointments could fill only vacancies that occurred between sessions, not in recesses during sessions. Of late, however, presidents of both parties have made many recess appointments during short adjournments — as short as 10 days. To limit this, both parties when controlling Congress have adopted the practice of conducting pro forma sessions so the Senate is not in recess even while most senators are away.
It was holding such sessions every three days when Obama abandoned the settled policy of presidents respecting this practice. He treated the Senate’s unwillingness to act on his NLRB nominations as an inability to act, and said this inability constituted a de facto recess. He disregarded the Senate’s express determinations on Jan. 3 and 6 that it was in session. And the fact that twice in 2011 the Senate, while in such pro forma sessions, passed legislation, once at Obama’s urging.