Following his recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama also moved ahead to fill three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. While congressional Republicans were expected to try to block these appointments through filibusters, they are necessary to enforce regulations on labor and regulations that protect consumers.
There is a larger issue here than a president making appointments to fill vacancies. The issue is the deliberate and sustained obstructionism that has as its goal maintaining vacancies in key positions in government. One or another party may agree on disagree on what government should do, but keeping government dysfunctional is profoundly wrong.
Good government is the first responsibility of those elected to public office. If Congress won’t provide good government, it is up to the President to do so.
Conservatives are crying foul, but there is actually huge precedent for Republican presidents performing recess appointments. President Ronald Reagan made at least three times as many recess appointments each year as has President Obama. It was both legal and necessary for the president to make these recess appointments especially since Congress would not act.
This is not just about politics. As American workers and consumers have become increasingly vulnerable to labor and consumer practices that are less than fair and equitable, they need their government to be on their side.
It is becoming ever more clear that a positive moral case for government is needed. Government should not be operating with a “vacancy” sign out when its most important function is the very opposite: the positive duty to establish justice and provide order. The job of government is to assist citizens by helping to ensure the society in which they live is based on the principles of equality and the common good, to keep them and their communities safe and well-regulated, and to create and sustain a government that protects human rights and the dignity of every human being.
Augustine of Hippo, in his “The City of God,” explains why a civil authority that has no regard for justice cannot be distinguished from a band of robbers. Catholic moral theologian Monsignor John Augustine Ryan was very specific on what constitutes justice and the role of government, especially in regard to economic inequality and labor. His astonishing work on distributive justice influenced Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He initiated the idea of a living wage. The Protestant Social Gospel, especially in the work of Walter Rauschenbusch emphasized the immorality of government failing to act to protect vulnerable Americans; John Paul II and his teaching on the dignity of work emphasizes that workers are to be protected. And in the witness and work of Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr., there is a powerful argument to be made for morally competent government.
As we approach the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, let us take time to really think about the standard of justice to which government should be held. As King wrote:
“We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refuses to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it would have failed to live up to its promise to insure ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens.’”
Since nearly half of all Americans now live near or below the poverty line, Dr. King’s message about the duty of the American government to live up to the core moral value on which this country was founded has never been more timely.
America was founded on a moral vision of good government, a government that should insure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens.”
Millions of Americans who struggling today to earn a living so they can live with some dignity need to know that their employers and financial institutions are playing by the rules. And to insure that, they need good government regulation in employment and consumer protection.
Good government. It’s the right thing to do.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.