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Cut the Politics in NLRB Choices with Longer Terms for Board Members

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Let's make sure the U.S. never again has to hang up multiple vacancy signs for unfilled board seats at the National Labor Relations Board headquarters at 14th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. One way to avoid long vacancies in the first place is to lift the NLRB above the politics of business and unions so that the board's sole concern is the fair enforcement of U.S. labor law.

To do that, we'll need longer-serving board members.

President Obama is not the first chief executive to resort to recess appointments to the NLRB—President George W. Bush did it, too—but Obama can be the last. The presidents have been trying to fill the board vacancies that are created when a member's five-year term expires or he or she leaves early. Lengthening the current five-year term for each of the five board members to 10 years or longer could cut down on the problem. Longer-serving board members would need higher annual pay than the current $155,500 level.

Political ideology is an important part of the selection process for U.S. Supreme Court justices, who are appointed for life. But lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices have helped to prevent the selection and confirmation process from sinking to the level now observed with many presidential appointees. Individual senators deliberately hold up floor votes to confirm presidential nominees as a way to frustrate policies they oppose.

While lifetime appointments are not appropriate for the NLRB, the Supreme Court example suggests a connection between term length and the independence needed to make decisions based on the long-term good of the country. And as a practical matter, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled the NLRB board could not make any decision with only two seats filled out of the five. So long vacancies—there were only two members through much of 2008 and 2009—can't continue.

NLRB members stand squarely in the middle of the U.S. workplace. In cases that come from the NLRB's administrative law judges, board members rule on some of the most sensitive issues facing the U.S., such as whether union elections are fairly held at non-union employers and whether unions are illegally coercing employers with secondary boycotts and various kinds of pressure tactics.

The board also makes rules involved in labor practices. Last month, for example, the NLRB proposed controversial new rules to speed up union elections, making it easier for unions to organize open-shop contractors and shore up relations with union contractors that have pre-hire agreements.

By lengthening the terms of NLRB board members and raising their pay, appointees to the board could take on the job as more than a temporary professional stopover. We can't go on the way we have been going.

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