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A recess appointment occurs when the President of the United States fills a vacant federal position, of a sufficiently senior level that the nomination must be confirmed by the Senate, while the Senate is in recess. To be confirmed, the appointment must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress (which in current practice means by roughly the end of the next calendar year), or the position becomes vacant again. Recess appointments are authorized by Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: "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."

Legitimacy of intrasession appointments

According to Henry B. Hogue, of the Government and Finance Division of the Congressional Reference Service,

It has been argued that as the clause was originally understood, it was expected that if the Senate was in session when an office became vacant, the president would make a standard advice-and-consent appointment at that time. The argument further maintains that recess appointments were only to be made during intersession recesses, which during the early days of the country lasted between six and nine months, and were thereforerequired to prevent important offices from remaining unfilled for long periods. The current interpretation, this view holds, allows appointments to be made during recesses too brief to justify bypassing the Senate.

Historically, presidents tended to make recess appointments when the Senate was adjourned for lengthy periods. Since World War II, presidents have sometimes made recess appointments when Senate opposition appeared strong, hoping that the appointee might prove himself or herself in office and allow opposition to dissipate. Most recently, however, as partisanship on Capitol Hillmarker has grown, recess appointments have tended to solidify opposition to the appointee.

Following the intrasession appointment of William H. Pryor, Jr. to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, a small number of criminal defendants whose appeals were denied by panels including Pryor appealed on the basis that Pryor's appointment was invalid. The Eleventh Circuit, in an en banc decision in Evans v. Stephens held that the Constitution permitted both intrasession recess appointments and recess appointments to fill vacancies that existed prior to the congressional recess.

Examples and use

Presidents since George Washington have made recess appointments. Washington appointed South Carolinamarker judge John Rutledge as Chief Justice of the United States during a congressional recess in 1795. Because of Rutledge's political views and occasional mental illness, however, the Senate rejected his nomination, and Rutledge subsequently attempted suicide and then resigned.

New Jerseymarker judge William J. Brennan was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 through a recess appointment. This was done in part with an eye on the presidential campaign that year; Eisenhower was running for reelection, and his advisors thought it would be politically advantageous to place a northeastern Catholic on the court. Brennan was promptly confirmed when the Senate came back into session. Eisenhower made two other recess appointments.

Ronald Reagan made 243 recess appointments during his two terms in office; George H. W. Bush made 77 during his single term, most notably Lawrence Eagleburger for U.S. Secretary of State in 1992, who had in effect filled that role after James Baker resigned.

President Bill Clinton made a recess appointment of Bill Lann Lee as Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, when it became clear that Lee's strong support of affirmative action would lead to Senate opposition. Similarly, when the Senate did not vote on his nomination of James Hormel to be Ambassador to Luxembourgmarker, Clinton made a recess appointment. Many people felt that the Senate's inaction was because Hormel was openly gay, and when he was appointed, became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. Clinton made a total of 140 recess appointments over his two terms. On one of the last days of his presidency, Clinton used the recess appointment power to place Roger L. Gregory on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuitmarker. Gregory was the first African-American to serve on that court. This was the first time since President Carter that the recess appointment procedure had been used to select someone to an Article III judgeship, which provides for life tenure and no diminution of salary. The appointment of Gregory raised questions about the meaning of the Recess Clause, Senate prerogatives, and the opportunity of a litigant in federal court to have a case handled by a judge with full independence. On July 20, the Senate confirmed Judge Gregory to a life term. The constitutional questions involved are still unresolved and were discussed in a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Developments under George W. Bush

Controversial recess appointments

President George W. Bush appointed two judges during Senate recesses, William Pryor and Charles Pickering to U.S. courts of appeals after their nominations were filibustered by Senate Democrats. Judge Pickering, who Bush appointed to the Fifth Circuit, withdrew his name from consideration for renomination and retired when his recess appointment expired. Judge Pryor was subsequently confirmed by the Senate for a lifetime appointment to the Eleventh Circuit. In his first six years in office, Bush made 167 recess appointments.

On August 1, 2005, Bush made a recess appointment of John Bolton, to serve as U.S. representative to the United Nations. Bolton had also been the subject of a Senate filibuster. The filibuster concerned documents that the White Housemarker refused to release, which Democrats suggested may contain proof of Bolton's abusive treatment and coercion of staff members or of his improper use of National Security Agencymarker communications intercepts regarding U.S. citizens. Having failed to win Senate confirmation, he resigned his office in December 2006 concurrently with the adjournment of the 109th Congress.

On April 4, 2007, during the Easter recess of Congress, Bush announced three recess appointments. The first was Sam Fox to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Belgiummarker. Fox's appointment had been thwarted in Congress because he had donated $50,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential campaign, a group whose advertisements many Democrats blamed for John Kerry's loss.

The second appointment announced that day was Susan Dudley to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget.

The third recess appointment on April 4 was Andrew G. Biggs to serve as Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Biggs was investigated by Senate Democrats in 2005, while serving as Assistant Commissioner for the Social Security Administration, concerning whether he violated a federal ban on congressional lobbying by federal employees when he edited the prepared testimony for a lobbyist appearing before a Democratic Policy Committee Social Security hearing as alleged by John Stanton in Congress Daily.

Prevention of further recess appointments

Starting in 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prevented any further recess appointments by Bush. A compromise was worked out for the August break, and Bush did not make any recess appointments. However, no agreement was reached for the two-week Thanksgiving break in November 2007, and as a result, Reid decided to keep the Senate in session by having pro forma sessions every three days. Prior to this, there had been speculation that James Holsinger would receive a recess appointment as U.S. surgeon general.The Senate was also kept in session over the Christmas break as well as during 2008 breaks. Hence, Bush was unable to make any further recess appointments during his presidency.


  1. Appointments Frequently Asked Questions", Congressional Research Service
  2. Original Meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause" UCLA Law Review Volume 52, Number 5(June 2005), pp. 1487-1578
  3. Evans v. Stephens, 387 F.3d 1220 (11th Cir. 2004).
  4. Recess appointment of federal judges
  5. "Sidestepping Senate, Bush sends Bolton to U.N." at CNN
  6. "Bolton to Leave Post as U.S. Envoy to U.N." at NY Times
  7. Personnel announcement at the White House website
  8. "Swift Boat donor's appointment sidesteps Congress" at CNN
  9. organizational chart at SSA website
  10. "Senate Dems target SSA official for promoting Bush plan" at
  11. "Reid To Bush: No Recess Appointments Wanted" at
  12. Days in Session Calendars U.S. Senate - 110th Congress 2nd Session
  13. Senate Calendar - December

See also

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