Playing during recess

National | Will Clinton sneak in controversial nominees?

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

When the cats are away, the mouse will ... circumvent the Constitution. At least, that's the fear of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). He led 16 of his Republican colleagues in warning the president against trying to sneak in any controversial nominees while senators are home enjoying the holidays. Mr. Inhofe promised that any such "recess appointments" would lead to a complete shutdown in the confirmation process when Congress returns on January 24. The Clinton-Inhofe tension is nothing new. The senator was one of the leading critics last year when President Clinton used a recess appointment to install Bill Lan Lee as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, even though the Senate Judiciary Committee had specifically rejected the nomination. Then, with Congress in recess for just five days in June, the president appointed gay activist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. For Mr. Inhofe, that was the last straw. Using a parliamentary tactic known as a "hold," he blocked action on all of the administration's civilian nominees. After the president promised to notify the Senate leadership of any future recess appointments in advance, Mr. Inhofe removed his holds, allowing several new judges to take their places on the bench. In late November, President Clinton made good on his promise of advance notification-sort of. With just days to go before Congress adjourned, he sent a list of 13 positions he planned to fill through recess appointments. Mr. Inhofe insisted that violated the spirit of the earlier agreement: The point, he said, was not just to notify the Senate, but to allow time to act on a nomination, if senators chose to do so. There was no time to act on the president's list, but there was time to threaten. Mr. Inhofe took the Senate floor to denounce 5 of the 13 nominees. If the president ignored the Senate's objections and went ahead with the five recess appointments, Mr. Inhofe warned that he personally would place a hold on every Clinton judicial nominee for the remainder of the administration. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart defended the planned appointments, suggesting that Mr. Inhofe "go read the Constitution." Gary Hoitsma, press secretary to Mr. Inhofe, said that statement was "laughable, coming from a president who doesn't know what the Constitution is." Among the objectionable nominees:

  • Bill Lan Lee. After one year in office under a recess appointment, the assistant attorney general for civil rights is as controversial as ever. A champion of racial quotas and expanded hate-crime laws, Mr. Lee is also a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton: Together they led student protests at Yale in defense of several Black Panthers convicted of murdering a fellow activist. Because recess appointments last only until the beginning of a new session of Congress, Mr. Lee's job will expire in January. A new recess appointment would keep him in his current position until January 2001, when the Clinton administration will close up shop, anyway.
  • John Holum. The president's nominee for undersecretary of state for arms control has publicly chided the Senate for failing to ratify an open-ended new Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He is also regarded as an unrealistic "dove" on foreign policy: In a recent journal article, after acknowledging the failure of arms control in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, and North Korea, he nonetheless championed further disarmament by the United States as an example to other nations.
  • Sally Katzen. President Clinton wants her as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, but conservative senators object to her record as a champion of big-government regulation during her tenure at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
  • Carl Spielvogel. The nominee for ambassador to the Slovak Republic is a major Democratic donor noteworthy largely for his blunt statement during President Clinton's first term that "There are quite a few disaffected 'heavy givers' who feel let down by a lack of 'tender loving care' since the [1992] victory."
  • Jay Johnson. The Wisconsin Democrat voted not to impeach President Clinton, then promptly lost his bid for reelection to Congress. Now the president wants to appoint him to a $140,000-a-year position as head of the U.S. Mint-even though that slot is currently filled. As of Dec. 13, President Clinton had not yet stepped over Sen. Inhofe's line in the sand. His only recess appointment thus far has been Leonard Page as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a nomination that Inhofe and company did not oppose. Still, Mr. Inhofe is pessimistic. "[Clinton] is going to go ahead and violate this because he is so arrogant and he is used to breaking his word."

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