Federal

Ed. Dept. Officials Get Recess Appointments

By Michelle R. Davis — April 28, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: Because of inaccurate information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, we incorrectly said that Edward R. “Ted” McPherson’s previous appointment as chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was also a recess appointment. He was confirmed for that position by the U.S. Senate in 2001.

President Bush has avoided a potential confrontation with Democratic senators by appointing two senior Department of Education officials to their posts while the Senate was in recess earlier this month.

The April 19 recess appointments of Eugene W. Hickok as deputy secretary of education and Edward R. “Ted” McPherson as undersecretary of education, the department’s No. 2 and No. 3 posts, respectively, mean neither must face Senate confirmation for the rest of the current session of Congress.

The two appointments continue a White House pattern of avoiding the normal process for high-level political appointments in the Education Department, which involves confirmation hearings before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and a vote by the full Senate.

Allen Abney, a White House spokesman, said that in the past, members of the Senate have held up the president’s education nominees, and that recess appointments are a way around the problem.

“As education is a top priority for President Bush, the White House felt it was important to fill these vacancies,” Mr. Abney said last week.

But Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, who once led a project on presidential appointments at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it appeared the White House wanted to avoid hearings that could provide an opening for criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The Bush administration is trying to insulate the [president’s re-election] campaign and itself from any opportunity for anyone to pick a fight,” Mr. Light said. “They’re doing potential damage control in education.”

Steering Clear

Mr. Hickok, formerly Pennsylvania’s education secretary, had been serving as both acting deputy secretary and undersecretary. He was confirmed by the Senate for the No. 3 post in 2001. Mr. McPherson previously was chief financial officer at the Department of Agriculture, a post he received through a recess appointment, said Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey.

The White House announced last October that the pair would be nominated for the deputy secretary and undersecretary positions.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Senate education committee’s ranking Democrat, said minority members were prepared to question Mr. Hickok, in particular, about the federal school law’s impact.

“Obviously, [the administration] wanted to avoid that, since there is a rising tide of criticism up here about how the administration is failing to adequately implement the law,” Mr. Manley said.

But Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the committee, said the recess appointments were a way to prevent Democrats from holding nominees hostage and “to make sure the department’s work gets done.”

The recess appointments continue a recent pattern by the Bush administration of steering clear of the Senate education committee. The appointment of the department’s new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Raymond J. Simon, was also made during a recess, as was the appointment of Robert Lerner, the commissioner of education statistics. (“Bush Bypasses Senate to Fill Two Posts,” Jan. 7, 2004.) The Senate later confirmed Mr. Simon.

The president has constitutional authority to make appointments during congressional recesses. However, without Senate approval, such appointments expire at the end of the congressional session—in this case, next January. Presidents often use the method to install controversial nominees, as President Bush has done recently with several federal judges whose regular nominations touched off fierce debate.

Though recess appointments have been used by past administrations, Mr. Light believes President Bush is using the method more frequently—particularly when it comes to the Education Department. But recess appointees do not carry the same clout that those confirmed by the Senate do, making it more difficult to govern, he argued.

“A recess appointment for a deputy secretary is a sign of failure,” Mr. Light said. “Government led by recess appointees is government led more poorly.”

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