Finally, Obama makes recess appointments

After months of obstruction by Senate Republicans, the White House announced on March 27 that President Barack Obama is appointing 15 nominees while Congress is in recess:

“The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees.  But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis,”  said President Barack Obama. “Most of the men and women whose appointments I am announcing today were approved by Senate committees months ago, yet still await a vote of the Senate.  At a time of economic emergency, two top appointees to the Department of Treasury have been held up for nearly six months. I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government.”

Following their appointment, these nominees will remain in the Senate for confirmation.

Obama Administration appointees have faced an unprecedented level of obstruction in the Senate.

   * President Obama currently has a total of 217 nominees pending before the Senate.  These nominees have been pending for an average of 101 days, including 34 nominees pending for more than 6 months.

   * The 15 nominees President Obama intends to recess appoint have been pending for an average of 214 days or 7 months for a total of 3204 days or almost 9 years.

   * President Bush had made 15 recess appointments by this point in his presidency, but he was not facing the same level of obstruction.  At this time in 2002, President Bush had only 5 nominees pending on the floor.  By contrast, President Obama has 77 nominees currently pending on the floor, 58 of whom have been waiting for over two weeks and 44 of those have been waiting more than a month.

I put the full list of recess appointees with their bios after the jump. In the good news column, Obama named Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Unfortunately, he also named pesticide and biotech lobbyist Islam A. Siddiqui as the U.S. Trade Representative’s Chief Agricultural Negotiator. More than 100 organizations opposed Siddiqui’s nomination “as a textbook case of the ‘revolving door’ between industry and the government agencies meant to keep watch.”

Also bad news: Obama did not use his recess appointment power to name Dawn Johnsen as head of the Office of Legal Counsel. I thought she had already been confirmed, because in January it became clear that there were 60 senators supporting her nomination. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee has repeatedly postponed considering her confirmation, raising questions about whether the Obama administration really wants Johnsen to do this job.

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Democratic leaders should be listening to Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced a resolution yesterday that would change the Senate’s rules on filibusters:

the first vote on a cloture motion – which ends a filibuster – would require 60 votes to proceed, the next would be two days later and require 57. This process would repeat itself until the number fell to 51, or a simple majority.

The idea is to restore the filibuster to its original use (delaying passage of a bill) as opposed to its current use by Republicans (to impose a super-majority requirement for every Senate action). The authors of the Constitution never intended to make the Senate unable to act without the consent of 60 percent of its members. But Republicans used the filibuster more times in 2009 than it was used during the entire period from 1949 to 1970.

However, an unofficial whip count shows Democrats very far from having enough votes to change the filibuster rules. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in effect took the issue off the table yesterday.

Also yesterday, Harkin advised President Obama to use recess appointments for dozens of nominees whom Republicans have been holding up. Unfortunately, the White House announced that the president will not use his recess appointment powers for now, because the Senate confirmed 27 out of more than 60 nominees Republicans are holding up. (The list of those 27 nominees is here.) Although Obama’s statement reserves the right to make recess appointments in the future, he should not have taken that off the table as long as Senate Republicans continue to hold dozens of nominees in limbo.

One of the most controversial nominees is Craig Becker. A February 9 filibuster blocked his appointment to the National Labor Relations Board, because Becker is supposedly too pro-labor. President George W. Bush used recess appointments to name seven of his nine appointees to the NLRB. Of course, they were all anti-labor. It’s past time to bring balance to that board.

UPDATE: Senator Dick Durbin supports Harkin’s filibuster reform efforts. A “senior leadership aide” told Greg Sargent that Durbin is “in talks with a number of other Democratic senators regarding possible changes to Senate rules.”

SECOND UPDATE: A new CBS/New York Times poll found 50 percent of respondents said the filibuster should not remain in place, while 44 percent said they should. I think with more education of the public about how the filibuster obstructs progress, support for changing the rules would grow.

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