On Friday, President Bush installed Alabama Attorney General William Pryor as a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Only last month, he appointed Charles Pickering Sr. to a similar position.
Both appointments are clearly election-year moves aimed at placating the religious right, a group Bush needs to help him in the November election. The morning of Pryor's installment, Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute -- an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, which describes itself as bringing "biblical principles into all levels of public policy" -- blasted Bush in The Washington Times for not coming out more strongly against gay marriage, for pushing legislation that he calls the "Ted Kennedy Leave No Child Behind education bill," and for increasing the budget for the National Endowment of the Arts. Knight wrote that both the National Education Association and the arts endowment "boldly promoted the homosexual agenda for schoolchildren."
The fact that members of the religious right are disappointed in Bush could cause some of them to stay home this fall, Knight warned. "I think his biggest problem will be social conservatives who are not motivated to work for the ticket and to ensure their fellow Christians get to the polling booth," he said in The Washington Times. As Knight pointed out, about 6 million fewer Christian conservatives voted in 2000 than in 1994 when they helped hand Republicans control of Congress.
In a campaign where Bush's overall numbers have started sagging, Karl Rove knows he can't risk losing the support of evangelicals. So it's hardly surprising that Pryor was chosen. After all, this is a man who has called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law." As Gary Bauer said afterward, Pryor's installment is "an important move so the rank and file can see the administration fighting hard on these kinds of issues."
It's too soon to tell if Bush's move with Pryor will help his re-election chances. But, clearly, the president ignored the Senate's "advise and consent" role -- mainly by appointing Pryor during Congress' absence. (And given how many times Congress will be in recess this election year, Bush could easily appoint all of the stalled appeals-court nominees before the party conventions.)
While presidents have the right to make recess appointments, few have exercised that power in such a blatantly partisan way -- mainly because they know it sours relations with the folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Bill Clinton appointed Roger Gregory as a circuit-court judge in December 2000, but the Senate confirmed Gregory for a life seat the next year. It's hard to see that happening with either Pryor or Pickering.
Bush doesn't have much to complain about. Despite GOP complaints and the Republicans' 39-hour reverse filibuster last fall, the Senate has approved the overwhelming majority of Bush's nominees. And while Republicans may not like the fact that they don't have a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, rules are rules. Democrats have every right to object to nominees they don't see fit to sit on a bench. Republicans certainly know that: They delayed plenty of judges during Clinton's last year in office so they could push their own nominees through if Bush won the White House.
It's unrealistic, however, to expect GOP senators to remind Bush that Congress is an equal branch of government. In November, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia told The Hill that he hoped the White House would think about recess appointments if there was no movement on the judges soon. This is the same senator who, over the weekend, was dispatched by the Bush campaign to criticize John Kerry's "32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems." Don't expect Chambliss to step out of his role as a partisan Republican anytime soon -- or to start thinking about his responsibilities as a senator.
Watching senators allow the president to trample their rights and responsibilities is sad for someone who admires Congress as an institution. While the pendulum of power often swings between the executive and legislative branches, congressional Republicans have
been willing participants in letting Bush steamroll them. If Republicans on the Hill don't start challenging Bush soon, voters should elect lawmakers who will.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.