The Corner

Richard Cordray & the Use and Abuse of Executive Power

Some think me a zealous advocate of executive power, and often I am when it comes to national security issues. But I think President Obama has exceeded his powers by making a recess appointment for Richard Cordray (whom I respect and have no problems with as a nominee) to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Any private party can challenge this nomination by refusing to obey any regulation issued by the agency as the act of an unconstitutional officer. As a result, this may be the first time that Richard Epstein and I get to represent someone in court together!

Here we go into the fun world of federal-personnel law (which is what lawyers in the Justice Department spend a fair amount of time on). The president’s power over what are known as “recess appointments” stems from Article II of the Constitution, which grants him the authority “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The Constitution does not define what a “recess” is — the Senate adjourns for short periods of time, and the question becomes when an “adjournment” becomes long enough to turn into a “recess.” In the past, attorneys general and presidents have thought that an adjournment would have to be longer than at least ten days to become a “recess.”

But President Obama is making a far more sweeping claim. Here, as I understand it, the Senate is not officially in adjournment (they have held “pro forma” meetings, where little to no business occurs, to prevent Obama from making exactly such appointments). So there is no question whether the adjournment has become a constitutional “recess.” Rather, Obama is claiming the right to decide whether a session of Congress is in fact a “real” one based, I suppose, on whether he sees any business going on.

This, in my view, is not up to the president, but the Senate. It is up to the Senate to decide when it is in session or not, and whether it feels like conducting any real business or just having senators sitting around on the floor reading the papers. The president cannot decide the legitimacy of the activities of the Senate any more than he could for the other branches, and vice versa.

Is the president going to have the authority to decide if the Supreme Court has deliberated too little on a case? Does Congress have the right to decide whether the president has really thought hard enough about granting a pardon? Under Obama’s approach, he could make a recess appointment anytime he is watching C-SPAN and feels that the senators are not working as hard as he did in the Senate (a fairly low bar).

Even with my broad view of executive power, I’ve always thought that each branch has control over its own functions and has the right — if not the duty — to exclude the others as best it can from its own decisions. The Senate can make sure that its rights are respected by refusing to provide any support or legislation to the agency, conducting tough oversight hearings, and enacting repealing legislation at every opportunity. It can also use non-formal means such as hearings, appointments, and funding of related agencies to impose a high cost for Obama’s act.

Most importantly, private parties outside government can refuse to obey any regulation issued by the new agency. They will be able to defend themselves in court by claiming that the head of the agency is an unconstitutional officer, and they will have the grounds for a good test case. They can call Richard first, me second, for advice!

— John Yoo is a professor of law at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. This post first appeared on Ricochet.

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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