Week In News: Jobs, Recess Appointments, Military

The U.S. economy is looking up, so say the numbers. The Labor Department reported Friday that employers added 200,000 jobs in December, while the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent. Host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about the significance of these latest job numbers along with other news from the week.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We just learned that our economy added 212,000 private sector jobs in December. After losing more than eight million jobs in the recession, we've added more than three million private sector jobs over the past 22 months.

RAZ: That's President Obama from his weekly address this morning, hoping that the latest jobs numbers could be a sign of better things to come. James Fallows of The Atlantic is with me now, as he is most Saturdays, for a look behind the headlines. Jim, happy New Year to you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Let's parse these numbers, jobs numbers, for a moment. What do they tell us?

FALLOWS: There's something good, something bad or sobering and something striking, at least to me. The good part is, of course, the trend. For now, a little more than two years, the unemployment rate has been going down, the number of new jobs created has been going up. And so the administration will work on this on political terms and, of course, on real terms for the economy as well.

The bad aspect is how slow this recovery has been. The entire U.S. economy still has about six million fewer jobs at its peaked a little more than four years ago. At current rates of job creation, it would take perhaps a decade to return to those levels. The surprising aspect of this last report for me is where the job lost was over the past year, which was mainly in government in all its forms.

The interesting phenomenon here is that in the debates about whether unemployment or the deficit was the bigger problem over the past year, the efforts to reduce government deficits have had an effect on hurting the economy, too, and we see in the fall in government payrolls.

RAZ: Jim, this week, the president installed four officials into jobs while the Senate was in recess, jobs that normally require Senate confirmation. This is a tactic he has generally avoided for fear of angering Congress. But this time, did he feel like he had no choice?

FALLOWS: That certainly is the White House's argument. And it's worth focusing on the specifics of the four appointments he made and then the larger battle that's been going on for quite a long time. President Obama made recess appointments of the director for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That's essentially the Elizabeth Warren agency we discussed over the past year, then three members of the board of a National Labor Relations Board.

And the argument he made in doing that was that in filibustering the possibility of a vote in those nominations, the Republican minority in the Senate was not simply blocking people for those jobs, but preventing those agencies in their entirety from functioning at all. The law setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Board said that until a director was in place, a number of its powers would not begin to take effect. And the National Labor Relations Board needs a quorum of at least three people on its board to do any of its functions.

The larger issue here, which we discussed over the months and years involves the evolution and even devolution of the modern Senate in its role in doing public business. President Obama disagrees with the Republicans in the Senate about whether the ruse of so-called pro forma sessions where the Senate will convene every three days for a period of just a couple of minutes and then dismiss itself until three days later, whether that constitutes an impediment to a president's constitutional ability to make recess appointments...

RAZ: In other words, if they meet for a few minutes, the Senate can say, well, we met so you can't make recess appointment because we weren't in recess?

FALLOWS: Exactly. And he argues that to do the business of government, he needs to move ahead and make this recess appointment.

RAZ: Does it signal a more aggressive posture from President Obama going into this election year? I mean, as I mentioned, he didn't want to do this before. He clearly doesn't really mind if he angers congressional Republicans.

FALLOWS: That certainly seems to be the case. And the tone in these recess appointments seems to me a continuation from the stand the White House took a month ago in the showdown over letting the payroll tax cut expire.

In his first two years in office, the president seemed careful not to overuse any of the tools of the executive in this ongoing procedural battle with the Senate. It may not be that as he comes in the election year, he's more willing both to fight the procedural questions and to say the reason I'm doing it is for the regulatory and economic goals that are represented by bodies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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