The Congress that Never Sleeps

August 24, 2011

In the coverage of the earthquake near Washington, D.C. I heard an interesting little detail in the personal accounts—the quake prompted Congress members to leave the Capitol Building and conduct business out of the Postmaster’s office. Seems they’re burying the lede here… isn’t Congress in recess? Why are there still Congressmen in the Capitol building?

You may be able to come up with the answer yourself. Ask the question: what might be going on during a recess that they would be willing to work through to avoid? As it turns out, they’ve been working not only through recesses, but through holidays and weekends as well. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that it’s not because of their unerring work ethic or their desire to serve the American people.

See, when they’re in session, Congress has the power to block any hiring (“appointment”) decisions the President makes. However, since Congress is in recess half the year to go back to their home states and talk to their constituents, any temporary hires the President makes during that recess is automatically approved, so the country isn’t shut down for half the year. These are called “recess appointments,” they’re a power explicitly granted in the Constitution, and they are very common, since the U.S. Government has just as much turnover as any other organization. On average, presidents make about 150-200 recess appointments, mostly just to fill vacant positions. Positions are very, very rarely vacant for more than a couple months.

Congress has blocked 223 appointments by Obama (20% of the positions he is authorized to fill). Many of those appointments have been vacant since he took office, including judicial posts, major cabinet positions, and the “jobs czar,” whose role is to address unemployment problems in the United States. Even though Obama has only been able to make 28 recess appointments in three years, Republicans have started leaving a handful of Congressmen in the Capitol for every break, including weekends, federal holidays, and currently when the President himself is on vacation. They leave just enough people there so than any effort Obama makes to fill an open position is blocked. That is why there were several Republicans working during the earthquake– their entire purpose for being there was to block any of Obama’s appointments. This is the only time in the history of the United States this has been done.

Incidentally, the government does not save any money by doing this. The money that an appointment would otherwise be paid in income is countered by the various fines and penalties that the government must pay as a result—for instance, criminals who would otherwise be required to pay fines for breaking the law are instead released without punishment because the government is unable to provide a fair and speedy trial without judges to try them. Of course, blocking appointments isn’t the only way Congress can lose money during recesses. Another example not related specifically to appointments was Congress blocking funds to the FAA, requiring it to be shut down, which meant that the airline companies who pay for the FAA instead kept those fees as additional profit.