Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has done the unthinkable by proposing rule changes in the Senate to restrict filibusters. The proposed change has been considered before by both parties at different times but rejected on the grounds that lacking an effective procedural tool like the filibuster would make it impossible for the opposition party to stop, or least constrain, the ruling party from doing anything it likes. The political winds of fortune change, so for the sake of fair play, filibuster rules have been left alone.
No longer. The proximate cause of the proposed change by the Democratic leadership is an opposition party that is not only uninterested in governing, but positively antagonistic about bipartisan compromise for the sake of it. As a result, the Senate remains a legislative body ground down by gridlock with tempers flaring on both sides of the aisle.
The immediate cause is a prime example of the Republican Party’s intransigence, however. Party loyalists in Congress have publicly declared they will do everything in their power to frustrate Obama’s presidency out of sheer (sometimes racially motivated) animus. In the Senate the filibuster has been used time and again to block executive appointments made by President Obama, ranging from federal judges to independent agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. For Obama’s entire presidency the NLRB has functioned without full membership because Republican Senators have misused and abused the power of the filibuster to deny hearings for his nominees. This means, in effect, that for the last five years hundreds of labor disputes have gone unmediated, which is the principle role of the board.
Republican opposition to the NLRB intensified in 2011 following its ruling against Boeing’s attempt to move large swaths of its manufacturing from Washington to South Carolina where unions are not as strong and labor laws are more permissive. The ruling angered Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC-R), who is anti-labor and pro-business. He claimed the NLRB is “the Grim Reaper of job creation,” even though we all know from the Great Recession that the real killer of jobs in this country is Graham’s own deregulatory economics. Opposition to Obama’s nominees to the NLRB is fundamentally about the Republican Party’s mission to dismantle much of the progress made by New Deal policies following the Great Depression, including laws that regulate the financial sector from doing its part in causing the Great Recession.
Craig Becker is a labor lawyer for the AFL-CIO and former board member of the NLRB: “There’s a breakdown of what used to be a consensus that the workers should have a right to organize, that this should be protected by the government, and that collective bargaining is a good thing for the country.”
The politics of labor runs both ways, however. Democrats used similar means during George Bush’s presidency to deny political appointments to the NLRB, fearing Bush’s anti-labor appointments would hurt American workers. Now that the tales of have turned, Democrats are understandably tired of taking the blame for America’s problems, a theme Republicans are constantly harping on but bear much responsibility for as well. The stakes are much higher in the current showdown because if nominees are not appointed the board will stop functioning.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesperson, put the point this way: “Republicans want to make this an ideological fight in an effort to dismantle the agency. If the Senate fails to act, the board will lose a quorum in August and be unable to function, which is exactly what Republicans are seeking.”
Sen. Reid’s announcement marks a sharp reversal from the Democratic Party’s usual cowardice and glad-handing. This is an important stand to take as the NLRB protects workers’ rights, and is one of the few means workers, unions, and corporations have for mediating and resolving disputes. Without the oversight of the board, how will disputes get settled? Perhaps Republicans want to return to the pre-NLRB era when disputes were settled by cat strikes, walkouts, and violence. The party is pro-forma in favor of settling disputes with the gun, and without laws to protect their rights, perhaps workers should demand employers respect their rights by arming themselves. How would this change Republicans’ views on gun control?