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The biggest news today was Trump’s announcement that, unless the Senate resumes confirming his nominees, he will adjourn both chambers of Congress and make recess appointments to fill the slots. Trump claimed he has “constitutional authority” to do this, likely referring to Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which deals with the relationship of the president to Congress. That section gives the president the power to convene Congress in an emergency—as presidents have done—and also to adjourn them “to such time as he shall think proper.” But there is another clause in that sentence providing that he can adjourn them only “in case of disagreement between [the Houses], with respect to the time of adjournment.” There is no such disagreement between the House of Representatives and the Senate; they have agreed to end the session on January 3, 2021.
Trump is unhappy because members of Congress have left Washington due to the pandemic, and the Houses are staying open through “pro forma” sessions. These sessions are “in form only,” and consist of members showing up simply to indicate that their Chamber is still open. They have attracted political controversy for years because these sessions stop a president from making recess appointments.
Trump wants to make such appointments to insert into office people who would not win Senate approval, like his current nominee for Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe (R-TX), who had to withdraw the first time Trump considered him because he was unqualified. “The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis,” Trump said at the day’s coronavirus briefing. “It’s a scam.”
Most of the vacancies that require Senate confirmation are empty not because the Senate is refusing to take them up, but because Trump has not nominated anyone.
The unprecedented step of trying to adjourn Congress would spark a fierce backlash among lawmakers of his own party, among others. Trump’s sudden attention to an often-forgotten power in the Constitution’s Article 2, Section 3 would undoubtedly call to mind the famous duty the same section requires of the president: “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”