Political Animal


June 20, 2011 2:05 PM Taking a hatchet to presidential power

By Steve Benen

In addition to the far-right policy agenda pursued by congressional Republicans, it’s worth noting that these same GOP lawmakers intend to take away as much of President Obama’s powers as they can.

The Constitution, for example, gives the executive the authority to make recess appointments, and dozens of House Republicans are eager to ensure Obama cannot exercise that authority.

The vast majority of freshman Republicans have told House GOP leaders they should block President Obama from making any future recess appointments.

In a letter sent to Republican leaders Thursday, a group of 77 freshman asked them to take any steps necessary to stifle the chance for recess appointments, including blocking any more recesses for the entirety of the 112th Congress.

“As freshmen, we came to the House of Representatives on a wave of public discontent with the lack of transparency in Washington,” the letter stated. “The next logical step in our efforts to restore the public’s trust in their government is to prevent further recess appointments.”

Why recess appointments have been fine for centuries, but now must be considered moves that undermine “the public’s trust,” is unclear.

What’s more, note that these Republicans aren’t just talking about this summer or even this year. The 77 lawmakers want to stop Obama from being able to use his own recess power, no matter the vacancy or the circumstances, indefinitely.

Also note, the same day as this letter about recesses, House Republicans also began pushing a measure to prevent the president from issuing “signing statements” — another power presidents have been using for generations.

And while we’re at it, let’s also not forget the ongoing scandal involving the Senate GOP refusing to allow votes on qualified administration nominees. While senators have “long exercised their constitutional prerogative to derail nominations,” the NYT explained today, the current “standoffs differ in at least one respect: Republicans have said they are not opposing a particular nominee but rather any nominee, whoever it may be.” A former Republican aide conceded, “This isn’t about any particular appointee — Ben Franklin could come back to life and [Senate Republicans] would oppose him.”

What I find remarkable about all of this is comparing the seriousness of the times and the severity of the GOP’s restrictions. In effect, President Obama is being told, “You have to fix the economy, win several wars, fix the housing crisis, respond to disasters, improve American energy policy, and keep the country safe, all while being fiscally responsible. But you can’t have a full team in place; you can’t enjoy the same powers your predecessors did; you can’t use the same tools your predecessors used; and you can’t expect the Senate to function by majority rule the way it used to. Good luck.”

This is no way to run an advanced democracy in the 21st century.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on June 20, 2011 2:12 PM:

    "This is no way to run an advanced democracy in the 21st century."

    And that's why we're no longer that, but a declining 3rd World Banana Republic.

    The "Reagan DEvolution."
    Thanks, Banana Republicans!

  • just bill on June 20, 2011 2:12 PM:

    advanced democracy? we haven't had an advanced democracy in the united states for years!

  • Danp on June 20, 2011 2:14 PM:

    Note to House Freshmen: 1) You do not have advise and consent powers. 2) If people in 2010 wanted transparency, they would have been a bit more upset with Citizens United, and certainly would have demanded to know where political donations came from. 3) Recess appointments are not part of that whole "transparency" issue anyway. In fact they are usually necessary because of those secret holds your counterparts keep pullin in the Senate. 4) Stop waving that goddamn declaration of independence around and calling it a constitution. 5) Go F*** yourselves.

  • keith on June 20, 2011 2:16 PM:

    What you are describing is another step in the radical seizure of the government by the rich and powerful. Their class warfare has already triumphed through the rulings of the Supreme Court that allow corporations to control all elections and immunize them from harms they do, intentionally or not, to their consumers or employees. Undercutting Obama, and presumably any other politician who this elite dislikes, is merely part of the mopping up operation. What we have now is Fascism without the labor unions or the glowering dictator; where this must lead is to social warfare.

  • bay of arizona on June 20, 2011 2:16 PM:

    Obama rarely made any recess appointments to begin with. There have been vacancies at the Fed since early 09.

    Also, the Constitution only requires the Senate be in recess, not the House, because they have nothing to do with confirmations.

  • Anonymous on June 20, 2011 2:16 PM:

    "Why recess appointments have been fine for centuries, but now must be considered moves that undermine “the public’s trust,” is unclear."

    It is not unclear at all.
    Barack Hussein Obama is blackity, black, black.
    Barack Hussein Obama is the first ever blackity, black, black president.

  • Rich on June 20, 2011 2:17 PM:

    You forget the obvious---Bush used all of these measures they seek to limit and they'd be the first to give back these powers to GOP president. The thing to do is to simply call bullshit on this nonsense and make sure you can defaet as many of the freshmen as possible.

  • Josef K on June 20, 2011 2:18 PM:

    Wonder how long these efforts will last should (god forbid) the GOP win the White House next year?

    Of course, should that happen, it won't really matter because Washington will simply implode from the sheer buffonery, even as the rest of the country explodes from the economic disaster the GOP will unleash.

  • Brenna on June 20, 2011 2:30 PM:

    Agree with Keith on his comment about class warfare.

    This country is heading for a huge revolution. If/when republicans are able to put all their plans in place, the American people are finally going to rise up in collective fury and turn out into the streets. It will be Madison on a national level.

    And if the elderly really believe the republicans will continue paying their entitlements, boy are they in for a rude awakening.

    The republicans are an evil and cruel party. I'm glad quite a few of us see the truth,, because there are a lot of stupid and just plain uninformed people in this country. I keep telling my husband what's going on and he doesn't believe me. He works a lot and doesn't watch much news.

    This is like a bad slasher horror movie.

  • zeitgeist on June 20, 2011 2:44 PM:

    Rich at 2:17 nailed it succinctly. There are no principles here; this is a flexible set of rules where a Republican President is a strong unified executive, a Democratic President is a weak partner to Congress. Unless of course the R's lose Congress in 2012, then perhaps its time to take all issues to the Supremes.

    There are several ways to stop this that should all be tried at once -- and sadly, this Administration will likely try none of them. First is to educate the public on the double standard ("Constitutional conservatives" calling for the blocking of Constitutional powers? for shame!) and on the substantive problem in Steve's last thought.

    Second is for Dems to get fired back up and overwhelm the 2012 elections - keep the Senate, take back the House, give Obama a mandate, take statehouses back, etc.

    Third, I have long thought a lawsuit is overdue on the refusal to give an up or down vote on appointments, particularly judges. The President still has the appointment power. Congress (collectively, not secret individuals) can advise. Determination of consent of the body requires the matter be put to a vote. Senate cannot lawfully hold both the Executive (in its appointment power) and the Judiciary (through excessive vacancies) hostage.

  • Kathryn on June 20, 2011 2:48 PM:

    I heard on a news report that Nixon created the EPA by executive order. Can Pres. Obama use executive orders to do anything about this obstruction? Agree with Keith and Brenna, but don't think I'll live to see it. Level of ignorance and apathy coupled by poverty/desperation takes a while to percolate. There are still too many semi-comfortable white folks around though taking social security and medicare down with Wisconsin like speed might more revolt along. In my worst nightmares, I would never have predicted the crap that's occurred since we dared to elect a black man made so much worse by the elections of 2010 in the House of Representatives and state governments.

  • kevo on June 20, 2011 2:55 PM:

    Come on Mr. Benen, the restriction on recess appointments was put forth by Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid after then Pres. Bush made Bolton U.N. Ambassador through a recess appointment! The political tactic is to keep the Congressional session open through a skeletal crew prefunctionally opening and closing each day the rest are away in their districts.

    I do agree the Republicans have no sense of democratic fair play, and so will use the tactic to the degree furthest from any healthy outcome!

    I also agree the Republicans have no intention of seeing any positive outcome for our current president, and are at this time actively working collectively against our nation's diverse citizenry, and for a monopolized outcome where they and their immediate vested constituencies can more easily run roughshod over the rest of us, and capture the WH in the next election cycle so they can continue their robber-baron ways into the next four years, at least, if not in perpetuity! -Kevo

  • bill.who on June 20, 2011 3:01 PM:

    I did not like recess appointments when W used them. I did not like W's signing statements that undercut acts of Congress. We should limit the use of both. Of course, to prevent them from being restored when convenient for politicians, we should make these changes with a Constitutional amendment. To ensure that the Senate exercises its power to "advise and consent" the amendment should also mandate a vote within 90 days of a nomination. Not going to happen, but if politicians actually wanted transparency and accountability we could have it.

  • rdalin on June 20, 2011 3:05 PM:

    There is a bit of apathy to this post, and many of the comments. Certainly fatigue. What if we were all enraged over this, to the point of marching and tea-party disruptions and chanting and everything else? We're basically watching the republicans change our government in a profoundly undemocratic way, like a slow motion car wreck that started in the mid nineties and has gotten worse and worse every year. Nobody cares because the minute you start talking rationally about senate procedures, most people fall comatose.

    Now if the shoe were on the other foot, republicans would be united in chants of hyperbole about treason and "defeatocrats" and every other smear they could come up with. There has to be a way of getting this message out without resorting to lying and fear mongering, otherwise we are just watching the ship go down around us.

  • Rich on June 20, 2011 3:34 PM:

    You'd be surprised how dumb people with degrees and Ivy league appointments can be. I interact with them daily.

  • rayspace on June 20, 2011 3:36 PM:

    Kathryn: it's true that Nixon created EPA by executive order, but that was considered a "reorganization" of the executive branch, in that EPA included bureaus brought over from other Cabinet departments and existing agencies. Nixon (actually, anyone who had the White House at that time) had the authority to do that, and Congress could have voted to block the creation of EPA, but did not.

  • Bob M on June 20, 2011 3:49 PM:

    Obama can drive the bus, but it's gotta be from the back.

  • j on June 20, 2011 3:53 PM:

    Another day of depression for me, ever since the stupid democrats did not come out in the mid-terms. I read that a load of right wing money is pouring into Madison before the recall elections, I also heard on TV that dems will probably lose the senate because they have so many seats to defend this go round. My prayers are with the people in Madison & all of us if republicans take the White House and the senate, my children can look forward
    to Wal-mart wages, no social security or medicare when they need it.We have a corrupt supreme court & no hope, I wish I was wealthy and could fund democrats but I am not, so it is a downer day for me, Oh they are also going to target Bernie Sanders. Do any of you know wealthy donors?

  • Trollop on June 20, 2011 4:09 PM:

    Cannot the President simply declare these people "enemy combatants"? I certainly would if even a hint of default were to take place on the debt ceiling! Jail every one of them for sedition.

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on June 20, 2011 4:22 PM:

    >> This is no way to run an advanced democracy in the 21st century.
    But it is a good way to run an advanced democracy into the ground.

    And that is, after all, their purpose.

  • JEA on June 20, 2011 4:24 PM:

    As I recall, Mr. Benen, I heard eight long years of liberal howling every single time President Bush put his name to a signing statement.

  • zeitgeist on June 20, 2011 4:36 PM:

    Wingers do luv 'em some false equivalencies.

    Neat parlour trick: take something that everyone has done to a lesser extent over time (drive 38 mph in a 35 mph zone). go to an extreme (drive 98 in a 35 zone). when called on it, say "when your guy was speeding, its ok, but when the other side speeds, it isn't!"

    this is how W did signing statements. note the left didn't scream when HW Bush did it. First, W did it more often, more aggressively, and more extensively (i.e. rather than just offering a reviewing court a sense of his understanding, he exempted himself from entire laws by fiat) than any other President of either party before or after.

    that'd be why you heard howling. an if Tea Partiers had the slightest consistency about Constitutional principles, they'd have been howling the loudest under Bush. i'm so disappointed to learn they're just political hacks. /snark.

  • vhh on June 20, 2011 5:53 PM:

    In 1948, President Harry Truman faced a similar situation with a GOP Congress that was determined to destroy his efforts to continue the FDR legacy while gearing up for what became the Cold War. The GOP even had their ideal candidate, Thomas Dewey, and convinced themselves and a supine press that they were going to win in a walk. Dewey was described by Walter Lippman as basically an opportunist, who "changes his views from hour to hour... always more concerned with taking the popular position than he is in dealing with the real issues." Truman thus ran his famous whistle stop campaign against a self-satisfied "Do Nothing Congress" not so different from the present lot in the House, and a flip-flopper Republican nominee not so different than GOP front runner Mitt Romney, to the accompaniment of a press establishment that derided Truman's accomplishments. The rest is history----the Chicago Daily Tribune could not be bothered to wait for the final vote count, and printed the famous Dewey Defeats Truman headline, which was wave triumphantly by Truman the next morning. Truman served his own elected term, for a total of 7 years as President, and although he chose not to run against Ike in 1952, he is retrospectively rated by scholars, both liberal and conservative, as being in the top 10 US presidents. The task for Obama, then is clear---run against a Congress which is even worse than Do Nothing, which has has actively tried to sabotage his considerable and reasoned efforts to help the US economy and ordinary Americans, this despite his considerable progress in killing terrorists and extracting the US from the costly wars that were a major cause of the increase in US debts.

  • rdalin on June 20, 2011 6:03 PM:

    vhh: "run against a Congress which is even worse than Do Nothing"

    That's a hell of a winning message, if the president would get behind it. Everybody hates congress!

  • alpipkin on June 20, 2011 7:08 PM:

    "This is no way to run an advanced democracy in the 21st century."

    In case you hadn't noticed ... we aren't an "advanced democracy." The United States of America is a constitutional republic! I know the Democrats are intent on turning us into a democracy, but they haven't succeed yet.

  • Anonymous on June 20, 2011 7:27 PM:

    "It’s hard to know where to start when detailing George W. Bush’s assaults on constitutional norms, but near the top of any list would have to be his signing statements. The former president used them to give laws passed by Congress a little “touch up,” explaining which parts of the law he didn’t like, which parts he’d ignore, etc."

    "There are plenty of reasons to look forward to the end of Bush’s presidency, but I’m especially pleased at the prospect of having a president who won’t sign bills into law, only to announce soon after which parts of the law he plans to ignore."

    The above quotes are from Steven Benen regarding signing statements from just a few years ago.

    Have a nice day.

  • Tom Marney on June 20, 2011 8:21 PM:

    "“You have to fix the economy, win several wars, fix the housing crisis, respond to disasters..." etc.

    And if he succeeds, they'll still hate him, just because.

  • rrk1 on June 20, 2011 8:36 PM:

    Advanced democracy indeed. We are a retarded, decaying poor excuse for a democracy, and have been for far too long.

    he Rethugs are waging an insurgency against their own country, and using the CIA playbook that it uses whenever it decides to destabilize some other government it doesn't like. It will work here as it does elsewhere, and when the dust settles we will be the right-wing dictatorship the corporate world wants.

    The idiotic Democrats are still playing by the old rules. Solving problems and governing with an even hand is not even close to the what the Rethugs want. That's why compromise doesn't work, and we, the reality based world, lose inch-by-inch with every piece of ridiculous legislation that somehow gets through what is laughingly called Congress.

  • exlibra on June 20, 2011 9:20 PM:

    Anonymous on June 20, 2011 7:27 PM:

    The above quotes are from Steven Benen regarding signing statements from just a few years ago.

    OK. So I'll bite on your bitter herb... And ask you: How many times has Obama used a signing statement? How many times has Bush done so? For Bonus Points: have people objected to signing statements when other Presidents used them -- judiciously?

    It is entirely possible that Obama is as profligate with his "touch up" pen (I used to think of it as a "white out" stick) as Bush The Lesser had been, and I'm simply not aware of it. But can you prove it to me? Otherwise, all I see is Repubs trying to prevent something not because it's a real problem, but because they're constitutionally (and un-Constitutionally) opposed to the "sauce for the goose" principle.

    replicator taitition. It's a venerable tradition when Bush does it every 15 seconds, but replicating his behaviour is not to be thought of.

  • Doug on June 20, 2011 9:23 PM:

    re: Anonymous @ 7:27 PM.
    Could you please provide a link or two to examples of President Obama issing a "signing statement" and declaring that he WOULD NOT obey the law?
    I won't be holding my breath...

  • Reality Bites on June 20, 2011 10:57 PM:

    Anonymous nailed Bennen's hypocricy on the issue. There's more quotes where that came from. Doesn't surprise me one bit.

  • Viking Navigator on June 21, 2011 5:51 AM:

    Bennen's intellectual integrity is non-existent. Given his past writings on signing statements he has further proven his hypocrisy, dishonesty and plain stupidity. He should seriously consider another, simpler and less demanding way to earn a living. Or, maybe he should just join the unemployment rolls and save us all from his insanity. Bennan.... you are flawed!

  • Pat In Massachusetts on June 21, 2011 6:11 AM:

    Two words. Recess appointments.

  • Kay Dennison on June 21, 2011 1:36 PM:

    Some of the comments here have just made me gag. I am so tired of their tired mantras and dedication to destroying our country. The bottom line is -- to the horror these people -- is that we elected a black man and they don't like it. We voted for change from greed and they don't like it. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a tad disappointed in Obama but only because he's trying to be rational with people who barely understand the concept.