Compromise on the Labor Board: a Glimmer of Hope for a Broken Political Process?



National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vacancies were not the only appointments addressed in the recent Senate compromise on the filibuster, but they were closely watched by business and labor alike. The NLRB is the federal agency responsible for protecting the rights of workers who want to form labor unions. Each year thousands of workers are fired or disciplined by their employers when they try to exercise that right, and it is to the NLRB they must go to seek redress when this happens. Vacancies on the board threatened to bring its work to a halt for lack of a quorum.


Republicans in the Senate had used the filibuster to keep President Obama’s nominees for the Board from reaching the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. President Obama tried to bypass the Senate entirely with a recess appointment, but the federal courts have been having none of it.

At this point, partisans on both sides believed the absolute worst of the others’ motives. Democrats believed that the Republicans wanted the Board to lose its quorum and leave workers completely unprotected. Republicans believed that the President was making an unconstitutional and dangerous power grab with his recess appointment power.

In the end, the Democrats agreed to drop the fight for the recess appointees to be made permanent and instead submit new nominees for the board; the Republicans agreed to a speedy vote on the new nominees. The compromise they crafted was interesting because each side, in so acting, took a step to refute the worst interpretations of their motives. The President affirmed that he did not intend to abuse the recess appointment weapon for executive aggrandizement; the Republican Senate promised a confirmation path for new nominees that would keep the NLRB in operation and doing its job.

There are plenty of hard cases on both sides who are furious with the compromise. But if it holds, the deal marks at least a cautious step back from the overheated partisanship that has become all too familiar.

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