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A grand design for greater gridlock at National Labor Relations Board

 A grand design for greater gridlock at National Labor Relations Board
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has proposed reforming the National Labor Relations Board so it has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee thinks he has the solution to perceived problems at the National Labor Relations Board: Make the five-member body just as deadlocked as Congress.

Alexander's recently proposed NLRB Reform Act, which has the backing of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, would expand the board from five to six members — three Democrats and three Republicans, each nominated by the president after consultation with the Senate leader from the opposite party. Board decisions would require four yes votes, which in today's hyper-partisan Washington means an evenly divided board of political appointees who would be unlikely to make any final determinations in politically freighted cases. If you don't believe that, just look at the stymied and ineffectual six-member Federal Elections Commission that has split its votes more than 200 times during the last six years.

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Alexander's revisions of the NLRB would also allow legal challenges to complaints issued by the NLRB's general counsel's office even before they are reviewed by the board itself; that could delay actions on labor complaints for months, if not years. This is not reform; it is legislative neutering.

The NLRB's roots stretch to the Great Depression, when joblessness was high and employers had significant power to dictate wages and working conditions, which led to lengthy and violent labor showdowns. In response, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 sought to protect “the free flow of commerce … by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association [and] self-organization … for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment.”

Alexander, McConnell and others ignore that history, preferring a gridlocked board unable to carry out its mission of enforcing fair labor practices. They presume that the NLRB is stacked for labor, but from 1974 to 2013, federal appeals courts upheld nearly three-quarters of the NLRB's decisions, and fully overturned only 18%, in line with rates for other agency decisions hit with legal appeals. Alexander's proposal is political posturing, a solution in search of a problem. Note that both Alexander and McConnell are up for reelection.

Fortunately, Alexander's revamping of the NLRB will get nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it does offer voters a taste of what sorts of policies a Republican-led Senate might pursue.

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