With government divided again this year, Republicans have blocked full recesses to try to deny Mr. Obama the same opening. Some Democrats had hoped Mr. Obama would have a chance to install a head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Board, over the opposition of Senate Republicans.
The origins of the adjournment provision of the Constitution are cloudy, but Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, said the governors of the Colonies had the power to shut down legislatures.
When states wrote their constitutions, many created strong assemblies and weak governors who lacked the power to adjourn the legislature.
“That shifted the Constitution writers’ concerns to questions about the potential abuse of power between legislative chambers, with the fear that one chamber could use adjournment powers to coerce the other chamber to do its bidding,” Mr. Squire said. “Thus, Article I, Section 5, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution built on the state constitutions, and although it avoided creating legislative supremacy along the lines of the state constitutions, it also chose to prevent one chamber from using adjournment to force its preferences on the other chamber.”
Two centuries later, the clause is still helping Congress.
On Friday, the two chambers had finished business without extending the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration. That left tens of thousands of employees and contractors out of work and was costing tens of millions of dollars a day in uncollected airline taxes.