WASHINGTON -- Doubling down on President Barack Obama's bold recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the White House announced Wednesday that Obama would also use his recess powers to fill three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law.
The labor board lost its quorum yesterday as the term of board member Craig Becker came to an end -- essentially crippling the agency, no doubt to the pleasure of many conservatives. Although the recess appointments will probably be challenged legally by business groups, the move could allow the board to continue operating without disruption. According to the White House, Obama plans to appoint union lawyer Richard Griffin, current Labor Department official Sharon Block, and NLRB counsel Terence Flynn.
Labor groups who had applauded the NLRB for many of its recent decisions quickly hailed Obama for the appointments. In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka commended Obama for "exercising his constitutional authority to ensure that crucially important agencies protecting workers and consumers are not shut down by Republican obstructionism."
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis similarly applauded Obama for making the NLRB appointments and said that had he not done so, Republicans would have continued blocking the nominees to the detriment of the economy.
"We can't afford to not move on very important issues that affect working class people, and particularly working Americans that are struggling right now," Solis said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. "We need to know there's a sense of security and ... that we honor the ability to collectively bargain."
Solis also singled out one of the appointees, saying she wanted to give "a shout-out to Sharon Block," a former Labor Department employee. "I know that she will bring a fair and balanced approach to all of her deliberations."
Generally a quiet, relatively little-known agency, the NLRB drew fury from conservatives throughout 2011. From a controversial complaint filed against the Boeing Company to new rules pertaining to union elections, the board issued a string of decisions and rules that conservatives said tilted the playing field toward unions and away from business owners. While Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and some of his colleagues went so far as to threaten to defund the board, labor groups and worker advocates hailed its actions as commonsense and beneficial to the middle class.
In a statement explaining his decision, the president said that "the American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day - whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans. We can't wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it."
Republicans' spat with the labor board started in April, when the board's general counsel filed its complaint against the Boeing Company. The complaint accused Boeing of breaking labor law when it tried to establish a production line for its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina. The move was retaliation against Boeing's unionized workers in Washington State for having gone on strike in the past, according to the complaint. Although the case has since been settled, it temporarily put Boeing's plans in South Carolina on hold. Republicans and business groups accused the labor board and Obama of meddling in corporate decision-making and possibly costing South Carolina jobs.
To the disappointment of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the labor board has also issued new rules that will speed up union election procedures -- leading to what some conservatives denounce as "quickie elections" -- and also make it easier for workers to determine their own collective-bargaining groups. Such actions have led conservative lawmakers like Graham to accuse the board of catering to the labor movement.
Business groups have even pounced on recent NLRB actions that appear non-controversial. For instance, the board has put forth a rule that would require employers to hang posters in the workplace informing workers of their collective-bargaining rights, much like the Department of Labor placards already found in American workplaces. Business groups have sued to stop the new NLRB rule.
The recess appointments will bring renewed attention to the labor board among conservatives in the coming days and weeks. In a tweet he sent out shortly after the White House announcement, Graham asked, "Mr. President, hasn't the NLRB already done enough damage?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that in addition to raising legal questions, Obama's NLRB appointments are "particularly egregious" because the president didn't even nominate Block and Griffin until two days before lawmakers left town for the holidays in December.
That means "neither has undergone a single confirmation hearing or a single day of debate," McConnell said in a tersely worded statement. "What the President did today sets a terrible precedent that could allow any future President to completely cut the Senate out of the confirmation process, appointing his nominees immediately after sending their names up to Congress. This was surely not what the framers had in mind when they required the President to seek the advice and consent of the Senate in making appointments."
The president's appointments are likely to provoke similar reactions from other Republicans. As recently as Dec. 19, all 47 GOP senators warned him against making any NLRB recess appointments to allow time for "a full and thorough review of their qualifications through regular order in the Senate." As for Cordray, nearly all Senate Republicans signed onto a letter in May vowing to block him, or any other CFPB nominee, until key changes are made at the agency.
But while Obama's latest move may seem unusually aggressive, particularly given his reputation for pleading with Congress for bipartisanship, it reflects a theme that administration officials say will continue to surface in the months ahead of the 2012 election: the president leaning on his executive power -- and not relying on Congress -- to try to boost the economy.
A senior administration official, who declined to be named or quoted, told reporters this week that while the president will continue to press Congress to pass pieces of his jobs agenda and other bills aimed at strengthening the economy in the coming months, that will not be his sole focus. Instead, he will pay increasing attention to actions he can take on his own.
This article was updated to include comments from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.