House is in session for minutes a day, to thwart Obama

WASHINGTON — Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Atwater, Calif., will briefly sit in a very special chair Tuesday for a several-minute skirmish in a long-running war.

By presiding over a ridiculously short House session, Denham is helping his fellow Republicans block President Barack Obama from making appointments while Congress is in recess. It's a bipartisan tactic, as are the recess appointments it's designed to frustrate.

"Stopping the president from bypassing the constitutional screening process and making a unilateral appointment is one way that I can ensure accountability to the people of California,” Denham declared Monday.

To do so, Denham will gavel in a new House session at 10 a.m. For the moment, he will be called House speaker pro tempore. Since he will probably be the only House member in the chamber, Denham will recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The House chaplain will say a short prayer. A brief announcement may be made.

Then, Denham will bang the gavel bringing the session to an end. Just by holding the session, Congress isn't considered to be in recess. No recess means no recess appointment.

The whole maneuver won't take long. The House wrapped up its Aug. 19 session in under seven minutes. On Aug. 16, the Congressional Record shows, the House session lasted four minutes.

"It could last four minutes," Denham's press secretary, Allie Brandenburger, said Monday, "but those four minutes are critical for the next four years. Rep. Denham believes we must do all we can to stop these recess appointments."

Denham was already on the East Coast Monday, making the quick trip to Capitol Hill relatively painless. By Tuesday afternoon, he's scheduled to be flying west so he can throw out the first pitch at a 7:05 p.m. Modesto Nuts baseball game Tuesday night.

Denham is playing his role in an old fight in which the parties keep switching sides depending on the offices they control.

The Constitution grants the president the power to appoint judges, ambassadors and other personnel when Congress is in recess. The recess appointees claim their positions without Senate confirmation, and can serve until the Congress adjourns. At most, this means two years.

President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, made 139 recess appointments during his eight years in office, according to the Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush, a Republican, made 171 recess appointments.

Bush, for instance, used his recess appointment powers to name a member of the Federal Election Commission, a deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration and an ambassador to the United Nations.

"This post is too important to leave vacant any longer," Bush said in August 2005, when he named John Bolton to the U.N. post.

In March 2010, Obama named 15 recess appointments, including a member of the National Labor Relations Board who was being blocked by Senate Republicans. Obama noted that the appointees, who included California's former secretary of education, Alan Bersin, had been waiting an average of 214 days for their confirmation votes.

The congressional defense is to avoid going into recess. Senate Democrats pulled a similar trick for the last two years of the George W. Bush presidency.

"Progress can't be made if the president makes controversial recess appointments," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued in November 2007, explaining that he was "keeping the Senate in pro forma (session) to prevent recess appointments."


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