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Recess Appointments

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What is a "recess appointment"?

  • This refers to a power granted to the president of the United States to make a temporary appointment to fill a vacancy for a federal post while the Senate is not in session, or in "recess."
  • Unlike other presidential appointments, recess appointments do not require confirmation by the Senate.
  • The power to make recess appointments is granted in the Constitution (Article II, Section 2, Clause 3): "The President shall have Power 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."

How long does a recess appointment last?

  • A recess appointment lasts until the end of the next full one-year session of Congress, or until the Senate confirms a permanent replacement, whichever occurs first.
  • We are currently in the 1st session of the 109th Congress, so any recess appointments made now would be effective until the end of the 2nd session (approximately December 2006 or January 2007, depending when the Senate adjourns).
  • Recess appointments made in the middle of a session generally last longer than those made in between sessions. For example, President Bush recess-appointed Charles Pickering to a federal judgeship in between sessions in January 2004. Pickering's appointment ended once the following session of Congress ended in December 2004, for a total term of about one year. The president also recess-appointed William Pryor to a federal judgeship in early 2004, just a few weeks after the Pickering appointment and also after Congress had started for the year. Because the Senate had already convened, Pryor's recess appointment was not scheduled to expire until the end of the following session, which would be in December 2005/January 2006, for a total term of just under two years (but in the meantime, the Senate confirmed Pryor to fill the post permanently).
  • Recess appointments cannot last longer than two years.

How long does the Senate have to be in recess for the president to make a recess appointment?

  • The Constitution does not specify how long a recess must be for the president to make a recess appointment, and experts disagree on what counts as a "recess."
  • In the past 20 years, the shortest recess in which recess appointments were made was 10 days. Both Presidents George W. Bush and William Clinton made recess appointments during a 10-day Senate recess. Mr. Bush recess-appointed William Pryor to the federal bench in February 2004, while Mr. Clinton recess-appointed James C. Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg in June 1999.
  • Theodore Roosevelt once made recess appointments when the Senate had recessed for less than one day.
  • The original purpose of the recess appointment was to maintain continuity of government while the Senate was in recess. In the early days of the United States, Congress was in session less than half of the year, so the recess appointment allowed vacant posts to be filled during recesses, rather than letting them sit empty for several months. In modern times, presidents frequently use recess appointments to seat nominees who face a difficult Senate confirmation process.

(Source: CNN Political Unit)

Recent Presidents and Recess Appointments

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): 240 total recess appointments (116 to full-time posts)

George H. W. Bush (1989-1993): 77 total recess appointments (18 to full-time posts)

William J. Clinton (1993-2001): 140 total recess appointments (95 to full-time posts)

George W. Bush (1st term only): 110 total recess appointments (66 to full-time posts)

(Source: Congressional Research Service, March 15, 2005)

Appointing Supreme Court justices by Recess Appointment

From 1953 to 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed three men to the Supreme Court via recess appointments: Earl Warren, William J. Brennan, and Potter Stewart. Although all three were subsequently confirmed by the Senate, some senators and legal experts of the day objected to the practice, arguing recess appointments can compromise the independence of the judge or justice being appointed. In 1960, the Senate passed a resolution on a party-line vote discouraging the president from appointing Supreme Court justices by recess appointment.

(Source: CNN Political Unit)

For more information about recess appointments, go to:

"Recess Appointments: Frequently Asked Questions," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, March 15, 2005external link (http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RS21308.pdf)

"Federal Recess Judges," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Feb. 2, 2005external link (http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RS22039.pdf)


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