President Obama's decision last week to appoint Robert Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) drove the phrase "recess appointment" into the American mainstream.
Another term is now emerging in the political vernacular: "recess theatrics."
House Republicans initiated this gambit when they dwelled in the minority in the summer of 2008. Now, House Democrats are trying to perfect it.
Here's how it works:
When the House of Representatives is out of session for an extended period, the minority party heads to the House floor to stir up a ruckus about why the other side isn't here in Washington, toiling to fix the nation's ills. The minority moans about the irresponsibility of the other side, questioning how the majority is fit to govern if it isn't here addressing the crisis of the moment.
Congressional recesses are typically slow on Capitol Hill. Congress usually goes dark over the holidays and in August. But hyperbolic machinations over protracted recesses can command attention from Congressional press corps that's starved for copy. These recess theatrics are exclusively the province of the minority. Sure the minority party in the House is generally bereft of power. But they can make a stink in the media by lobbing political Molotov Cocktails at the other side and displaying outrage over the baleful rule of the majority.
House Republicans christened the recess theatrics maneuver when Democrats ran the House in August, 2008.
That was a presidential election year. So both parties scheduled their quadrennial political conventions for late August and early September. The House took a roll call vote to adjourn for a month to accommodate both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Most Democrats voted to adjourn. Most Republicans did not. But adjourning was the will of the House. One can only imagine the howls from the Republicans if Democrats required the House to stay in session during the GOP Convention in St. Paul, MN.
Nonetheless, Republicans eyed an opportunity. After the House voted to adjourn, scores of GOP members commandeered the floor to grouse about how then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) shuttered the place. They asked how Pelosi could possibly adjourn the House for a month when gas prices were spiking. Republicans argued that Pelosi should recall members to Washington to address fuel prices if she were truly responsible. Republicans even suggested the California Democrat was singularly to blame for the climbing pump prices. They dubbed the increases the "Pelosi Premium."
Republicans held daily rump sessions on the House floor for a month. They escorted scads of tourists in each day to rail against the Democrats.
Of course, none of this appeared on TV. The House of Representatives (and thus, the party in power) controls the television cameras inside the chamber. The House only sends out an audio and video feed of the proceedings when the chamber is actually meeting. But that didn't stop Republicans. They wheeled in a phalanx of reporters to the floor each day to listen to their speeches. They then held daily press conferences outside the House chamber to denounce the Democrats.
"We think its is unconscionable that Congress has gone on vacation before we have addressed the high gas prices that are crippling our country," thundered Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) at the time. "We are asking that you reconvene the House from your five-week vacation."
But in politics, the best idea is a stolen one. It's typical for one party to appropriate and then perfect the same tactic that's initiated by the other side.
That's what House Democrats are trying to do now with the latest round of recess theatrics.
The House has been in an extended recess since before Christmas. In fact, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) only scheduled lawmakers to meet in Washington for actual legislative business for a handful of days this month.
Democrats took that and ran.
Late last week, the House was scheduled to conduct what's called a "pro forma" session. Pro forma sessions are abbreviated meetings which are at the crux of the recess appointment debate. The Constitution prohibits either body from recessing for more than three days without an agreement from the other. Since Republicans control the House, they never signed off on the Senate adjourning for a lengthy period. That forced the Senate to also convene at three day intervals. This was a GOP effort to potentially block Mr. Obama from making a "recess appointment." In other words, if the Senate was away for more than three days, it was widely viewed that the president could circumvent the traditional confirmation process and make an appointment. But President Obama is now challenging that precedent with several recess appointments.
The White House argues that if the Senate is just meeting in pro forma sessions, it truly is not capable of conducting business and cannot receive presidential nominations. The Constitution grants presidents authority to make such appointments if the Senate is out of commission. The president's gambit is likely to wind up in court.
House Democrats are rather pleased with Mr. Obama's ploy to install Richard Cordray at the CFPB and send three persons directly to seats on the National Labor Relations Board. But they're even more exercised that the House is barely meeting this month. This comes as the clock ticks on a final deal to renew the payroll tax break. The payroll tax issue stymied lawmakers in December. And after much consternation, the sides finally settled on an interim, two-month fix. Time is running out as Congress could again find itself on the brink of another crisis at the end of February if negotiators fail to forge a compromise.
So Democrats used the House meeting on January 6 as an opportunity to stage some recess theatrics.
Democrats had already scheduled a press conference for 10 am, the same time the House met for its pro forma session. But the Democrats dispatched Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to the House chamber for shenanigans. Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) presided over the pro forma session, scheduled for just a couple of minutes. Edwards led the Pledge of Allegiance. When Denham went to close the session after two minutes and 30 seconds of parliamentary housekeeping, Clyburn attempted to gain recognition on the floor.
Denham virtually ignored Clyburn. Meantime, the South Carolina Democrat raised his resonant bass voice to drown out the presiding officer.
"Democrats are here ready to work. Where are the Republicans?" asked Clyburn rhetorically.
"The gentleman is out of order!" was Denham's brusque rejoinder.
As if on cue in a stage play, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) then entered the House chamber from the Democratic Cloakroom in the year.
"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!" hollered Waxman, to no avail as Denham abandoned the dais.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT), Vice Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) then trailed Waxman, signaling that the cavalry had arrived.
"Republicans are out of session!" barked Clyburn from a lectern near the front of the chamber.
And for the next 20 minutes, Democrats debated back and forth on the floor as though the House was meeting.
Except that it wasn't.
But to those inside the chamber, it certainly looked a lot like a traditional House meeting.
Those watching C-SPAN never saw any of this. The House cut the feed seconds after Denham brought down the gavel. The Democrats' dramatics was merely a performance for the 30 reporters who squeezed into the press gallery to watch. The Democrats were unforgiving in their rhetoric. They castigated the Republicans for failing to come back to Washington immediately after the holidays to fix the economy.
In fact the House stenographer assigned for this session, Megan McKenzie, continued to transcribe the remarks from her post in the well of the chamber. Someone from the Clerk's Office finally tapped McKenzie on the shoulder to indicate the House session was now complete and she should to stop typing.
The Democrats' stagecraft was akin to a stunt a few weeks ago executed by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Hoyer came to the floor during a pro forma session in late December to debate the payroll tax issue. In that episode, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) presided and quickly gaveled the House meeting to a close. But the House didn't halt the television feed as quickly then as they did last week. So Hoyer hectored Fitzpatrick as he left the rostrum, accusing the GOP of "walking out" on the American people. That clip of video went viral and enabled Democrats to suggest that Republicans were "abusing their power," arrogantly ignoring Hoyer's pleas to resolve the payroll tax issue.
With last week's effort, Democrats hastened to the news cameras already arranged in the corridor steps from the House chamber to denounce their colleagues for refusing to meet.
"We were just shut down and not allowed to speak when we're in session and we're not allowed to do the people's work," bellowed Clyburn.
Pelosi took the Democrats' argument a step further. Just the day before, Republicans protested that it was Constitutionally impossible for President Obama to make recess appointments because the House and Senate were in fact meeting.
"We were told with great vehemence yesterday that the House was in session," protested Pelosi. "What is this? One month on, one month off?"
Then Donna Edwards stepped to the microphones.
"I thought today was a work day," said Edwards. The Maryland Democrat contended that she expected the House to conduct business when she drove to the Capitol that morning.
Edwards' suburban Maryland district borders Washington, DC. So when Democrats controlled the House, leaders often asked Edwards to preside over similar pro forma sessions. I later asked Edwards if she ever expected any legislative business during the pro forma sessions where she presided. Edwards sidestepped the question.
CNN's Deirdre Walsh asked Pelosi about the criticism Democrats heaped on Republicans in August, 2008 for their fake sessions about gas prices. Pelosi admonished Walsh for getting "bogged down on who did what last summer."
Whatever Republicans did last summer - or four summers ago....or what the Democrats are doing this winter - Congress has established a new precedent for Congressional recesses. This helps Democrats score some press while Republicans run through the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary. The same was true for Republicans in the summer of 2008 as Democrats prepped for their political convention.
And it looks like recess theatrics are here to stay.