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Opinion: Columnists

In Congress, a quiet and powerful union ally gathers scalps

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For most congressmen, a committee chairmanship is a life goal. The power lies with the gavel. Nobody told that to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a staunch ally of Big Labor, who has quietly proven his might despite working from the House minority.

As the ranking minority member on the Education and the Workforce Committee, Miller has given Washington's business lobby a lesson in political hardball, forcing two Republican members of the National Labor Relations Board to heel. One of them ended up getting kicked off the board.

"Generally, as the minority party, we have no power," said Aaron Albright, Miller's committee spokesman. His boss, he noted, cannot issue subpoenas or compel witnesses. Which makes Miller's feat all the more impressive. He did it with no institutional leverage, relying instead on sheer aggression.

Under a new Obama-appointed majority, the NLRB has been pushing a number of pro-union initiatives. The most famous involves action against Boeing, which set up a new facility in the right-to-work state of South Carolina. Another involved a union-backed rule to speed up workplace elections.

Last June, Brian Hayes, then the board's lone Republican, claimed his colleagues were abusing the rulemaking process to pass the election rule. Things grew so heated that by October, Hayes threatened to quit, leaving the board without a quorum to act.

When word leaked of Hayes' threat, Miller demanded to know what "inducements" he may have been given to quit by business groups.

It is important to understand that Miller never claimed to have any evidence of any such offer. Nevertheless, he said in a Nov. 23 letter to Hayes, "The open calls to resign, followed by the threats you allegedly made, raise the specter of private requests as well." He demanded "all communications" between Hayes and outside groups.

Hayes refused to comply, but Miller's pressure tactics apparently worked anyway: Hayes backed down from his threat to quit. The NLRB passed its rules for quick workplace elections on Nov. 30. The following week, Miller revealed that NLRB's inspector general had opened a probe into Hayes. Miller's letter to Hayes had triggered it, according to Albright.

The probe went nowhere. "We found no enticements were made to Member Hayes to resign his position as Board Member," Inspector General David Berry said in his Jan. 23 report. Miller called on the Justice Department to investigate anyway. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Miller said, without a trace of irony, "board members must be free of coercion and undue influence."

Both Albright and Hayes' counsel, Rob Kelner, said they have not been contacted by the Justice Department, which declined to comment to The Examiner.

In March, Miller revealed that Inspector General Berry had also been probing Terence Flynn, a Republican who had only been appointed this January. Flynn had previously been general counsel to a former Republican NLRB Chairman Peter Schaumber, and later he had worked under Hayes.

Unlike the Hayes matter, this probe hit pay dirt. Flynn had been in regular email contact with Schaumber, who now worked as a business consultant. Flynn had shared nonpublic documents with Schaumber, and even edited op-eds that Schaumber was writing for National Review. Berry concluded that Flynn violated federal ethics standards.

Miller upped the ante this time, calling on Holder to investigate not only Flynn but also Schaumber's clients. When Flynn subsequently resigned, Miller twisted the knife, calling it "the most corrosive scandal in the agency's history." The Justice Department declined to comment on this too, as did Flynn's attorney.

One remaining mystery is what prompted the inspector general to begin his probe of Flynn. "Since it was not included in the report, it is not disclosable," said NLRB spokesman Anthony Wagner.

A former NLRB official speculated that Berry must have come across information about Flynn during the Hayes probe, since Flynn was working under Hayes at the time. That is corroborated by the transcript of Berry's interview of Flynn, where he lets slip, "This came up as a result of another investigation," though he doesn't offer further details.

Assuming it was the Hayes probe, Miller's call for it turned out to be a twofer. It ensnared two Republican members, collecting one scalp and sending a stark warning to the business lobby: Keep your hands off the NLRB.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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