Obama rewards unions with key labor appointee

President Obama on Saturday gave organized labor a big payback for its help in pushing his health-care reform across the finish line, unilaterally appointing a controversial pro-union attorney to the body that arbitrates the rules for union elections, after his nomination attracted bipartisan opposition in the Senate.

Coming just a few days after the president’s health-care plan was passed into law despite opposition from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and strong disapproval in most public opinion polls, the move promised to only heighten political tension in Washington.

Obama, using what is known as a recess appointment, placed Craig Becker, the associate general counsel at the Service Employees International Union, on the National Labor Relations Board. Becker was one of 15 recess appointments announced by the White House Saturday afternoon, a time guaranteed to attract less news coverage and attention than during the work week.

The president has the power to appoint without Congressional approval while the body is not in session, and it is a tool that virtually all presidents have used to one degree or another. The White House pointed out in a release that President George W. Bush had made 15 recess appointments at about this point in his presidency.

The caveat is that recess appointments expire. Becker’s seat on the five-member NLRB — whose board members usually have five-year terms — will run out at the end of 2011, the White House said.

But Becker’s appointment drew strong denunciations from Republicans because his overt pro-union disposition and former writings have convinced many that Becker will push provisions making it easier for employees to unionize through the NLRB, instead of the White House having to move such actions through Congress.

“In his January State of the Union address, President Obama pledged that he would work in a bipartisan fashion to confront the challenges facing our nation. Instead of living up to that pledge, the President today ignored the Senate’s bipartisan rejection of a highly-controversial nominee,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

All 41 Republican senators sent a letter to the president Thursday urging him not to recess appoint Becker.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the president was “overriding the will of the Senate.”

“This is the first time since 1993 that the Chamber has opposed a nominee to the NLRB. The Chamber’s opposition is based on Mr. Becker’s prolific writings, which suggest a radical view of labor law that flies in the face of established precedent and case law and is far outside the mainstream,” said Randel Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits.

The Obama administration has increasingly looked to the NLRB as the forum in which to accomplish its pro-labor goals, rather than through Congress, after support for the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as “card check,” dissipated last year.

Hatch said that Becker “believes that card check legislation can be implemented through regulation.”

The NLRB has had three vacancies since December 2007, due to political wrangling that dates back to the Bush administration’s acrimonious relationship with the Democratic-controlled Congress. In addition to Becker, Obama also used his recess appointment powers to place Mark Pearce, another labor attorney, on the NLRB.

Obama has appointed a Republican, former Senate staffer Brian Hayes, to the NLRB, but did not put him on the body with a recess appointment.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, called it a “stunning” move to “recess appoint two Democrat nominees to the NLRB and leave the Republican behind.”

“This is a purely partisan move that will make a traditionally bipartisan labor board an unbalanced agenda-driven panel,” McConnell said.

Senate Democratic leaders brought up a motion in February to end debate on Becker’s nomination and bring it to the floor for a vote. But the cloture motion did not receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster, with two Democrats joining 31 Democrats in voting against Becker.

Another 10 Republicans did not vote on the motion, along with four Democrats and one Independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki cited the vacancies on the NLRB as justification for Becker’s appointment, calling him a “a widely respected legal scholar and expert labor law practitioner.”

“There have been vacancies on the NLRB for two years and Becker’s nomination has been held up by a Republican filibuster for months,” Psaki said via e-mail. “A majority of senators support his confirmation.”

The AFL-CIO, said spokesman Eddie Vale, was “very pleased that such a qualified nominee is finally seated on the board.”

“The only shame is that Republican obstructionism made it take this long,” he said by e-mail.