Is Congress in recess or not?

A few days ago President Obama initiated the routine process of raising the national debt ceiling. Republicans in Congress loudly objected that this wasn’t fair because Congress is recess, so Obama agreed to postpone the matter until later.

Yesterday President Obama made some recess appointments, which the Constitution empowers presidents to do when Congress is in recess. Now, of course, Republicans are complaining that Congress, which they had just said was in recess, is not in recess after all, because about every three days a handful of people in the House hold a pro-forma session for literally a matter of seconds during which no business is allowed. Even the Republican leadership admits that the only purpose for these sham meetings is political, to try to stop the president from exercising his constitutional authority to make recess appointments.

As Steve Benen points out in a useful summary of the situation, Congress’s own non-partisan Congressional Research Service has expressed doubts about the validity of such political tricks intended solely as an end-run around the Constitution.

The same CRS report also notes in passing that through 2011, Obama had made just 28 recess appointments versus Reagan’s 240, George H. W. Bush’s 77, Clinton’s 140, and George W. Bush’s 171. Of course, Obama has been in office for not quite three years, so a fairer comparison would be the average number of recess appointments per year for recent presidents: Reagan 30, the younger Bush 21, the elder Bush 19, Clinton 18, and Obama 9.

As you know if you’ve paid any attention to recent events, Congressional Republicans have been trying (often successfully) to block almost any positive action on the economy in the hope Obama would take the political blame for the resulting stagnation. Presidents and Congresses have fought in the past, but what the Republicans are doing really is, no exaggeration, literally unprecedented. In the meantime, Democrats and Obama have bent themselves into pretzels compromising to try to make a little progress.

Even a number of conservative Republicans, including just a few days ago Mike Huckabee, have been expressing concern that too many in their own party care more about political advantage than helping the country.

For more on the story behind the first of yesterday’s recess appointments, follow these links to articles by Jonathan Cohn and James Fallows. In brief, the Republicans have been blocking a vote on a candidate even Minor Leader Senator McConnell acknowledged was a good choice because the minority wants to overturn an existing law that makes it a little harder for big banks to rip off their customers.

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