In one of its most anticipated opinions of the term, the Supreme Court dealt a sharp blow to presidential power on Thursday, restricting the recess-appointment power in Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board.
The case concerns the president's ability to temporarily appoint individuals to posts that otherwise require Senate confirmation when the upper house is not in session. Noel Canning, a Washington bottling company, had challenged an National Labor Relations Board decision. The company argued that members of the organization had been improperly appointed during a recess—Obama had tapped them when the Senate wasn't in session, so their appointments weren't valid, and neither were the decisions they'd made. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, agreed. (Justice Antonin Scalia, while agreeing with the decision, took issue with the reasoning in a lengthy concurrence; while Breyer relied on the history of Congress-White House relations, Scalia contended there is clear guidance on this in the text of the Constitution.)
My colleague Garrett Epps will have in-depth analysis of the Court's decisions later, but here are the basics of Noel Canning.
1. What does the decision say?
The recess-appointment power is a vestige of the era before airplane travel. Now that members can move between their home districts and Washington within a day, fewer long recesses are needed. But presidents like to use recess appointments for expediency or, in this case, to get past obstructions. Republicans were seeking to block President Obama's nominees to the NLRB, which tends to side with unions over businesses. In the Senate, the threat of filibuster had killed confirmation chances, but Obama could appoint members if Congress adjourned. So Republicans in the House held "pro forma" sessions to avoid empowering Obama: They showed up, gaveled in, and gaveled out. That also meant the Senate couldn't adjourn. (Fun fact: This trick was actually pioneered by Democrats during the George W. Bush administration.)