It’s easy to ignore President Barack Obama’s dispute with Senate Republicans over his recess appointments if you don’t care what the government is doing with your money.

But if you do, this fight is about a lot more than whether one man gets a new job.

It’s about such heavy-duty constitutional questions as how far an embattled president can go to perform his job despite cynical lawmakers who leave no tricks up their sleeves in order to stop him.

It’s also about serious policy questions, such as whether weaker regulations and oversight can best prevent financial crises like the 2008 meltdown — which occurred partly because of weak regulations and oversight.

And, if that heady stuff is still too boring for you, consider at least the entertainment value of this kerfuffle. Watching Senate Republicans and the president block and dodge each other over recess appointments rivals the zaniness of a Road Runner cartoon.

The battle began when the president, unable to get his appointments confirmed in Congress, did what other presidents since George Washington have done: He waited until Congress was on vacation.

The Constitution allows the president to act alone by making an appointment without Senate confirmation while the Congress is in recess. If the Senate fails to approve the appointment by the end of the next session of Congress, the position becomes vacant again.

But Republican senators charge that Obama broke the law with his Jan.4 appointments that included Richard Cordray to direct the new and popular Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They weren’t really in recess, the senators claim. But they’re bending the rules, too.

To block Obama’s authority, Republican senators held “pro forma” pretend sessions. They called the Senate into session, even if only for 30 minutes, without any actual work being done. The resulting clown show offers a good example of why Congress’ approval ratings have dropped in a couple of recent polls to 11 percent, rivaling polygamy, pornography and the BP oil spill.

The pro forma ploy has bipartisan offenders. Democrats used it to block some of President George W. Bush’s appointments. I objected to the trick then, and I object to it now. I believe presidents should be able to choose their own people for key positions, unless a legitimate reason disqualifies them. Republicans don’t object to Cordray, a well-qualified Democrat and former Ohio attorney general. They object to the new agency he has been appointed to direct.

The CFPB was created in July 2010 by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in response to the 2008 meltdown. Although that disaster followed decades of deregulation, Senate Republicans want more deregulation.

They want to move the agency’s budget, now funded by the Federal Reserve, to the congressional appropriation process. They also want to replace the single director with a bipartisan commission and make it easier for other banking regulatory agencies to veto new consumer protection rules.

In other words, they’re holding the CFPB director’s job hostage to rewrite a law that was enacted by a Democratic Congress and President Obama. If Obama has pushed presidential power beyond past limits, so have the Senate’s pretend “sessions” that allow a Senate minority to impose its will on the entire government.

Are either side’s actions constitutional? The Supreme Court may be asked to decide, since the Constitution doesn’t define what constitutes a valid recess for recess appointment power.

And another court fight may be brewing over whether Cordray can legally do his job, says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution: The new consumer protection powers under Dodd–Frank technically cannot be exercised by the CFPB until a Senate-confirmed director is in place.

Either way, the Cordray fight joins other recent events in signaling a less conciliatory Barack Obama. He is framing this battle as a fight against obstructionist Republicans who stage phony sessions to defend big banks against middle-class Americans. Even if he were to lose in the Supreme Court, he stands an excellent chance with the court of public opinion.


Email Clarence Page at

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