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Obama Fills Key Posts with Recess Appointments

March 29, 2010 at 4:36 PM EDT
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The Obama administration is moving to fill 15 vacant administrative posts that have been long-delayed by the Senate through the use of recess appointments. Judy Woodruff gets two views on White House attempts to name appointees without Senate approval.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The president moves to break the logjam on still-vacant administration posts.

With the Senate away on a two-week recess, President Obama moved over the weekend to fill 15 key administration jobs that had been held up for months. Individual senators can place holds or delay consideration of nominations by the executive for a variety of reasons.

On CNN yesterday, senior White House adviser David Axelrod accused Republicans of playing political games with the nominees.

DAVID AXELROD, senior White House adviser: We are in a position where the Republican Party has taken a position where they are going to try and slow and block progress on all fronts, whether it’s legislation or appointments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These recess appointments expire at the end of the congressional session. Mr. Obama’s most controversial appointment was that of union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans contend Becker would bring a pro-union bias to the board, which mediates labor-management disputes.

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said the president’s action would only add to the partisanship in Washington.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER, R-Tenn.: What the president has done here is throw fuel on the fire at a time when the civil — when the debate about politics is a very angry debate to begin with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among the other appointees named were two top Treasury Department officials, who had been held up for almost six months, despite what the president called an economic emergency.

The White House also defended the moves by noting that President George W. Bush had made 15 recess appointments by this time in his presidency. But the Obama administration pointed out that Mr. Bush faced less obstruction, since just five of his nominees were pending in March of 2002, compared with 77 for Mr. Obama now.

For a closer look at recess appointments and the impact of Senate holds on the executive branch, we turn to two people who follow the White House and Congress closely, Norman Ornstein, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, and Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University.

Gentlemen, good to have you back both with us again.

Paul Light, to you first.

Our read — our reporting indicates that all but one of these 15 appointments had bipartisan support. If that’s the case, why were they being held up?

PAUL LIGHT, professor of public service, New York University: There are lots of reasons.

You know, there are a variety of different kinds of holds, personal holds, extraction holds, holds that are used to get something from the administration and also to get something from one’s own colleagues.

So, it’s often like a random shooting, to be honest with you. I mean, the quality of the hold is often related to what you can get in response to it. It — it — it does — holds are often related to the nominee him or herself, but, sometimes, they’re related to something a senator wants from his or her own colleagues. And some of these were held up for that reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that, Norm Ornstein?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: This is happening with increasing frequency, though, Judy.

It is a combination of individual senators holding nominees hostage for reasons that may have nothing to do with the qualifications or political views of the nominee. And that can happen with both parties. What we’re also seeing here, though, I think, is that, more and more, we’re having nominees who have widespread support just delayed in a process where a minority is trying to clog up the works.

And that’s adding to the friction, along with the occasional nominee — and that’s the case with Craig Becker in this case — where there really is a genuine political division over…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s the fight there over? What is the objection to him?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We have two things going on here.

The National Labor Relations Board has been operating for some time without a quorum. It doesn’t have enough members.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us quickly what that is.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It regulates labor-management relations and labor unions. And, frankly, Republicans are pretty happy at this point with a Democratic administration and a Democratic majority that would otherwise be on the board to have it pretty much deadlocked.

We just had a court case go forward where Chief Justice Roberts said, why doesn’t the president just use his recess appointees? So, we have got three nominees pending, two Democrats and one Republican. They have all been held. In the case of Becker, because of his longstanding work with the Service Employees Union, SEIU, Republicans believe that this is truly putting somebody who would wreck management by promoting labor unions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Light, how much different is the situation, though, now than it has been under previous presidents?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, I think, if you roll back the clock to the 1970s, it’s much more aggressive. There is more delay in the process, more difficulty getting people through.

Obama is right now on course to be the slowest president getting his administration into place in modern history. And it’s very troublesome for governance. I would add one point to Norm — Norm’s comment. Sometimes, the very best nominees are the right targets for holds. The better they are, the more likely you can get a concession. There are very-high quality hostages out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why — Paul Light, why is it worse than it was?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, I think everybody is generally scared in the White House of making a bad appointment. It can really derail your administration and create distraction that can undermine your voice in Congress and in the nation as a whole.

So, a bad appointment hurts more than a good appointment helps. So, on the White House side, the vetting process has become almost abusive. Well, actually I take that way the word almost. It is abusive. And, on Capitol Hill, there just has been a relaxation against — of the rules that used to govern your behavior towards the president’s nominees.

The president used to get the benefit of the doubt. That’s no more — no longer the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Norman, we cited, at this point in his presidency, George W. Bush had five appointees who were — had been held up a long time.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for President Obama, it is 77?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Seventy-seven. And there are 217 nominees waiting action. The 77 are those that have cleared committees and are ready to go to the floor. And then you have got a larger number waiting.

With those 77, on average, they have been waiting for about six months, many of them even a little bit longer. There is no reason for this, other than individual senators. When you put a hold on, in effect, what are you saying is, I will deny unanimous consent to move this forward.

For a leader to move a nomination forward, that means he might have to take weeks doing it. So, even though most of these nominees will ultimately either withdraw or they will pass with overwhelming majorities, there is simply no — nothing in it for the leader to take that time to do it.

So, it’s really creating a clog that we haven’t seen before. But, moving to recess appointments, you know, really does create an additional friction in this process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Paul Light, how much difference does it make if these positions go unfilled?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, it’s crippling to the federal bureaucracy. You don’t have somebody there to move the information.

Now, what was the Christmas Day bombing plot, the failure there about? It was a failure to connect the dots. Part of the issue was the absence of key positions being filled up and down the hierarchy. This is a recipe for paralysis. It doesn’t help an administration move forward.

The Bush administration had problems with its top nominees in national security. Many were absent on September 11. And now we see the same basic thing happening under Obama. It — it cripples the bureaucracy, produces paralysis, and — and demoralizes the bureaucracy, even on issues where there is strong bipartisan consent about the need for governing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Norm Ornstein, what can be done about it, if anything? And there is such atmosphere of hostility.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And, you know, it is — it is — it is individual senators using their prerogatives to the limit. It’s the partisan division and distrust that we have right now.

And it’s a process which, as Paul said, puts so many layers in place and so much difficulty in getting through, that it gets dragged out for a very long period of time. There are reforms that can expedite the process.

One of the things that has to be done, though, is that the Senate is going to have to take back some of that individual power, and, among other things…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That — you mean individual senators?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Individual senators have to hold people hostage, for no reason other than to get leverage for something else.

You know, imagine if you could just pluck somebody off the street and tell their family, until you give me X, this person is not going to be released. It wouldn’t be a very pretty picture. You — you need to have the Senate basically agree that there will be a time limit where nominees can be held before you actually get an up-or-down vote.

And that’s something that, frankly, both parties have been unwilling to do, because 100 people don’t want to give up that power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very briefly, Paul Light, do you see any prospect of this getting improved any time soon?

PAUL LIGHT: Senator Feingold and McCain have introduced legislation to reduce the total number of appointees by a third. That would accelerate the process and make the nominations more visible. It would also restore a little bit of the prestige associated with them.

But, you know, my view is that, if you can’t fill a job within six months, get rid of it. And that would sober up the Senate in a moment. That is one way to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we thank you both, Paul Light, Norman Ornstein.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Judy.

PAUL LIGHT: Thanks.