WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama skirted Congress on Wednesday to fill three vacancies on an embattled labor board, drawing sharp criticism from big business and praise from labor unions critical to his re-election effort.
Obama used his authority to bring the five-member National Labor Relations Board to full strength for the first time in nearly two years through so-called recess appointments, which temporarily circumvent the requirement for Senate confirmation.
He installed attorneys Sharon Block, Richard Griffin and Terence Flynn to the independent agency that oversees union elections and investigates suspected unfair labor practices.
Block is a senior Labor Department official and Griffin is a labor attorney and a former NLRB counsel. Both are Democrats. Flynn is currently counsel to the NLRB's lone Republican, Brian Hayes.
The move sidestepped congressional Republicans who have obstructed nominations to the board and left it short-handed for an extended period.
Obama was under pressure to act when he did as the NLRB lost the quorum necessary for it to fully conduct business on Tuesday when member Craig Becker's term expired. Becker, also a recess appointment, was named to the job by Obama in 2010.
Also on Wednesday, Obama used a recess appointment to name Richard Cordray to head the country's new consumer financial watchdog. The appointments are part of a broader White House strategy to portray Obama as an activist president confronted with a do-nothing Congress that has stymied his economic agenda.
"The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day - whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans," Obama said in a statement.
The NLRB has been a target of Republicans who view it as a proxy of organized labor, a key constituency of Obama as he seeks re-election and a punching bag for conservatives engaged in a broad fight with unions over collective bargaining rights.
It was involved in a politically charged case last year with Boeing Co that Republicans used to slam Democrat Obama. Last month the board also ruled to shorten the time frame for union elections - a change that outraged business.
"Today's steps will simply further poison the well with regard to labor-management issues pending in front of the board and on Capitol Hill," Bruce Josten, government affairs vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
The labor movement community quickly praised Obama's move.
"We commend the president for exercising his constitutional authority to ensure that crucially important agencies protecting workers and consumers are not shut down by Republican obstructionism," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.
David Weil, a government labor relations expert at Boston University's School of Management, said Obama made a reasonable decision. "Had he not acted, the board may not be able to make any decisions. It was unfortunate it had to go through this procedure," Weil said.
He noted that any decisions by the board under the new membership configuration will be controversial as business will continue to consider the panel illegitimate and Republicans will most certainly keep up the pressure.
The NLRB has almost 200 pending cases but none thought to be as controversial as the Boeing suit over its non-union plant in South Carolina or the election-rule change, which was vigorously protested by Hayes, who threatened to resign over it.
Business interests are seeking to overturn the measure in court.
Congressional Republicans have scrutinized the NRLB, claiming it has abandoned its independence to serve Obama's agenda. One committee, the House Oversight panel, has sought documents and other information from the board on its activities under his administration.
An administration official said the appointment of Flynn as the board's second Republican on Wednesday should lessen the partisan sting. But Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said Obama's appointments show that he "seems more and more willing to take highly controversial actions" to please labor ahead of the November election.