President Obama has announced his intention to use a recess appointment to push through the nomination of a leading critic of missile defense to be one of his top science advisors.
Philip Coyle was named in March as Obama's nominee to become the associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The nomination elicited a coordinated campaign by conservatives to oppose his selection, based on their longstanding disagreement with Coyle over the Bush administration's efforts to rapidly expand ballistic missile defense deployment all over the world.
In his new post, Coyle will lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national-security issues and report to OSTP Director John Holdren.
Coyle has decades of experience, having watched the U.S. missile-defense program evolve from a 1983 speech by Ronald Reagan to a worldwide system of radars and interceptors still being pursued by President Obama. During the Clinton administration, he was the Pentagon's director for operational test and evaluation, which played a key oversight role in the program.
Since 2001, Coyle has been a leading scholar at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank focused on weapons and procurement issues. He also spent years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and once served as principal deputy assistant secretary for defense programs in the Department of Energy.
Coyle is also an outspoken critic of the way missile defense has been developed, tested, and deployed. He has often argued that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile-defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.
"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in 2009. "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."
Obama opposed recess appointments when he was a senator, but since assuming office, he's changed his tune. The Senate has failed to act on scores of his nominees, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, has been leading a charge to change the rules in the Senate to make public the "secret holds" that often stall such nominations.
"It's unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes," Obama said in his statement announcing the appointments. "These recess appointments will allow three extremely qualified candidates to get to work on behalf of the American people right away.
More than 180 nominees are currently awaiting action from the Senate, the White House said.
According to the Congressional Research Service, "The Recess Appointments Clause [in the Constitution] was designed to enable the President to ensure the unfettered operation of the government during periods when the Senate was not in session and therefore unable to perform its advice and consent function."
Coyle's appointment will expire at the end of this session of Congress, meaning he would have to be nominated again at the end of this year. GOP Senate offices are already promising to oppose his nomination again when that time comes.
"Hopefully, when Coyle loses his job at the end of the Congress, they appoint someone a little less ideological next time," one senior GOP senate aide said.
A similar situation surrounded George W. Bush's appointment of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations during a congressional recess in 2005. Bolton resigned at the end of that Congress, knowing his confirmation following the 2006 victory by the Democrats would be unlikely.