For the first time since the New Deal era, the United States could, by the time Labor Day 2013 rolls around, find itself entering into an extended period without either a secretary of labor or a functioning National Labor Relations Board.

The prospects are dire for working people and for the unions that represent them, as Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and others explained at a Washington event this week. “Each day that the board sits idle is one in which workers’ lawful rights are put at risk," said the Madison Democrat.

Pocan can't change the circumstance.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have the power to avert the crisis created by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism.

President Obama has selected a well-qualified nominee for secretary of labor: Tom Perez, a former Maryland Department of Labor secretary who has served in the Obama administration as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. But the Perez nomination has languished without Senate action since May, when it was approved on a 12-10 vote of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The president has made necessary nominations to fill open positions on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.

One of Obama’s nominees, Mark Gaston Pearce, is a current NLRB board member whose term expires in August. If the Senate does not confirm Pearce and the others, Communications Workers of America union President Larry Cohen argues that the board will be rendered ineffectual.

“The protections that workers fought and died for, already diminished by subsequent legislation and court decisions, will soon disappear if the Senate fails to confirm the president’s nominees before its summer recess,” explains Cohen. “There are only three current members sitting on the five-seat NLRB. The constitutionality of the three recess appointments has been voided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chairman Mark Pearce’s term will expire in August. If the Senate does not act, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. Zero enforcement and no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”

But the Senate cannot act under its current rules, which allow a minority of senators to abuse filibuster rules in order to block votes not just on legislation but on presidential nominations.

McConnell, who has made no secret of his disdain for unions and the federal laws that have for 78 years provided a measure of fairness for working people and the organizations that represent them, practices his most militant obstructionism when it comes to labor rights.

It is hard to imagine that nominations for labor secretary or for the NLRB will get Senate votes if the existing filibuster rules are not changed — at least when it comes to the confirmation of nominees. So Reid will on Thursday is gathering the Senate Democratic caucus to again ponder the modest filibuster reforms that senators such as Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have been proposing for several years.

Reid has rejected reforms in the past, creating great frustration on the part of the Democratic base. But the majority leader seems to be coming to the realization that abuses must be addressed.

This is no longer merely about filibuster reform or arcane Senate rules. McConnell’s obstructionism now threatens to render the NLRB dysfunctional — and to make the enforcement of rules protecting American workers dramatically more difficult.

This is about a lot more than politics. It is about whether the government will function as it has under Democratic and Republican presidents, under liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and conservatives like Ronald Reagan. It is about whether the constitutionally defined responsibility of the Senate to provide advice and consent, to approve or disapprove presidential appointments, is respected. And it is about whether working Americans will have a government that watches out for them — as opposed to McConnell’s corporate campaign contributors.

“The Senate majority has all the tools it needs to make sure that workers’ rights are protected and labor law is fairly enforced,” says CWA’s Cohen. “The Senate Democratic majority must adopt rules that allow for an up or down vote for these nominees. That’s what democracy looks like, not obstructionism, not games playing, not valuing Senate ‘decorum’ over the responsibility to constituents to get the people’s business done.”

John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times, and Robert W. McChesney are authors of the new book on reforming politics and government, "Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America" (Nation Books). Thom Hartmann says: “This is exactly the book every concerned American needs to read, because the process of understanding what exactly is going on and taking America back from the corporations starts here.” jnichols@madison.com @NicholsUprising

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