Obama and recess appointments: He's not the only one to make them often

Recent presidents have made more recess appointments because of partisan gridlock in the Senate, where nominations are held up, analysts say. Obama has made 18 so far. Bush made 171 in his eight years in office.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about exports, jobs, and the economy, on July 7, 2010, in the East Room of the White House.

President Obama's decision Wednesday to bypass the gridlocked Senate to fill key administration posts follows a pattern of rising use of recess appointments by recent US chief executives.

By acting while Congress is in recess, Mr. Obama skirted the Senate's usual advise and consent role for appointees, angering the minority Republicans. They object in particular to the president's choice of Donald Berwick, a Harvard pediatrician and founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, to head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Republicans had criticized Dr. Berwick’s nomination since April, citing his support for government-run health care.

The increased presidential use of recess appointments bears a direct correlation to political polarization in Congress – and willingness of the minority party to filibuster to delay or deny confirmations, says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. He expects that trend to continue.

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House

As president, George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments, and Bill Clinton 139. Many of those recess appointments were also contentious, but it was the only way for presidents to fill positions, Mr. Mann says.

“Nowadays, given how often Congress is in session, the original intent to make such appointments has been largely replaced by the president facing strong opposition to his nominations,” he says. “Either he couldn’t get them confirmed or the process would stretch out.”

Obama is caught in the same political battle as his predecessors. In bypassing the Senate to appoint Berwick, the president managed to fill a position that had been vacant since 2006.

Senate Republicans had indicated that they would use Berwick’s confirmation hearing to remind the public of their objections to the health-care reform package that passed in March with no GOP votes.

The White House defended the move as vital to supervising the new health-care reform law. “With the agency facing new responsibilities to protect seniors’ care under the Affordable Care Act, there’s no time to waste with Washington game-playing,” Dan Pfieffer, the White House communications director, said in a statement.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell criticized Obama’s appointment in a statement, saying it was a way for the Democrats to “sneak [Berwick] through without public scrutiny.”

Because Berwick's appointment bypassed the Senate, it is considered temporary and will expire at the end of the Senate’s next session.

Besides appointing Berwick, Obama also announced the appointments of Phillip Coyle as associate director for National Security and International Affairs and Joshua Gotbaum as director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. He has now made a total of 18 recess appointments.

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House


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