The GOP's war on the NLRB isn't just about airplanes and unions.
The Boeing case is currently in the middle of a judicial proceeding—a centuries-old forum for sorting through facts in order to determine, through a reasoned adversarial process, what happened. And that's what makes Issa's assault on the NLRB an attack not only on unions but on due process and the rule of law. As Professor Catherine Fisk at the University of California-Irvine School of Law explains, "If Congress got involved in an SEC investigation of, say, Enron, while the case was still pending, people would have been outraged."
But there seems to be little outrage forthcoming from those who have either written off the reasoned adversarial process altogether or who see the demise of the NLRB as a useful move in the larger attempt to torch the entire federal government. Issa has made no secret of the fact that he would merrily close down the NLRB if it doesn't run its independent agency his way. He's hardly alone. In February, congressional Republicans tried to pass an amendment to defund the NLRB. (They ended up merely slashing the budget.) Then in May, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., put forward legislation to defund the Boeing complaint. That makes about as much sense as putting forward a bill to defund Citizens United.
What has Issa been doing in the name of "oversight"? Well, this past week he issued a congressional subpoena for all the NLRB documents related to the Boeing matter—while the matter is still pending before an administrative law judge in Seattle. For those who believe the NLRB is comprised solely of beings hatched and raised in secret underground labs by the Obama family in order to foment worldwide socialism, this is good news. Mumble, mumble, "job-killing," mumble and such. But as 34 labor and legal experts pointed out in a letter sent to Issa last month, this unprecedented demand for "[a]ll documents and communications relating to the [NLRB's] Office of General Counsel's investigation of Boeing" imperils not only an ongoing case but also the functioning of the NLRB in the future. As the professors warn, oversight is clearly important, but "other congressional committees routinely manage to carry out their oversight functions without intruding into active cases." The administrative law judge overseeing the case recently denied Boeing's request for just such material. Why should Congress gain access to privileged material for only one side of the case?
The NLRB's Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon noted how completely unheard of it is for congressional oversight to scuttle an ongoing judicial process, indicating in a statement that "[t]o the best of my knowledge, this is the first time since 1940 that the National Labor Relations Board has been the subject of a Congressional subpoena. I am disappointed and surprised by this development. For months, my staff and I have diligently tried to satisfy the Committee's desire for information while also preserving the integrity of our process and the rights of the parties in a case being actively litigated." The subpoena requires that Solomon turn over all requested materials by noon this Friday. He cannot comply without violating all sorts of work-product and attorney-client privilege rules. When he fails to do what he cannot by law do, he will presumably be in contempt of Congress. So it's not just the rule of law and law enforcement that are imperiled by Issa's subpoena-happy meddling. It's legal ethics as well.
If Congress doesn't like what the NLRB is doing in the Boeing case, it has remedies. But it cannot determine—in advance of a quasi-judicial proceeding—that the NLRB has done something wrong merely by bringing a complaint against a business it's grown rather fond of. It's clear that congressional Republicans stand to lose nothing and to gain a good deal by going after unions. But imagine the bloodletting if congressional Democrats had gone after the SEC or the EPA because they didn't approve of a single administrative decision. It hardly bears repeating that a government agency that can be papered to death, defunded completely, or shut down by a handful of pro-business hecklers is not a government agency that can function. And I am well aware that this is the endgame here. Democrats should not let this happen without a colossal fight.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Darrell Issa courtesy the Office of Congressman Darrell Issa.