WASHINGTON ― The Senate confirmed Alexander Acosta to be the next labor secretary on Thursday, filling an important but long-vacant role in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
Lawmakers voted 60-38 in favor of Acosta’s nomination, with all Republicans and a handful of Democrats supporting the law school dean and former official in the George W. Bush administration. The son of Cuban immigrants, Acosta will be the first Latino to occupy one of Trump’s Cabinet posts.
He will come to Washington to lead an agency in flux. Trump has signaled that he wants to dramatically reduce the budget at the Labor Department, which is tasked with enforcing the nation’s labor laws and administering federal jobs training programs. The White House clearly envisions a more limited role for the agency in the U.S. economy, having repealed or stalled several labor regulations issued by Barack Obama.
While Democrats and labor groups brace for a more business-friendly Labor Department, Acosta, a former prosecutor, said in his March confirmation hearing that he was committed to enforcing wage and safety laws on behalf of workers. “Helping Americans find good jobs ― safe jobs ― should not be a partisan issue,” he told senators.
And yet Acosta made clear he intends to carry out Trump’s agenda as it relates to labor issues, saying he would honor the White House’s order to review all regulations currently on the books for potential repeal. He also indicated he’s not a fan of Obama’s significant overtime reforms, which would extend new wage protections to millions of salaried workers but are currently tied up in court.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made her case against Acosta’s confirmation on the Senate floor Wednesday. Warren chided Acosta for dodging her questions on issues like the silica rule, which would further limit the amount of cancer-causing dust that employers can expose construction workers to. Although that rule is projected to save 600 lives per year, the Trump administration has delayed enforcing it. Acosta made clear he would follow the administration’
“Mr. Acosta has had multiple opportunities in the more than two months since he was nominated for this position to demonstrate that he would stand up for workers,” Warren said. “Time after time, he has refused.”
Whatever concerns liberals have with Acosta, he is a vastly more palatable choice to them than Trump’s original labor nominee, Andrew Puzder, the former chief executive of CKE Restaurants. Puzder led the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains and was a sharp critic of a $15 minimum wage and more generous overtime rules. His nomination collapsed in February amid a fierce campaign by Democrats and labor groups, leading Trump to the safer choice of Acosta.
Acosta is currently dean of the law school at Florida International University. He’s been through the confirmation ringer before, having been a member of the National Labor Relations Board, which referees disputes between unions and employers. He also headed the Civil Rights Division at the Bush Justice Department, which led to perhaps the blackest mark on his government record. An inspector general report found that officials at the division had politicized hiring while Acosta led it.
“It happened on my watch,” he acknowledged during his hearing. “It should not have occurred.”
While many of Trump’s Cabinet members are hostile to their agency’s very missions, there’s nothing in Acosta’s past to suggest he wants to dismantle the department he will lead. That said, labor groups are not expecting him to be an ally. When he sat on the labor board, Acosta frequently sided with employers over unions, though former Democratic colleagues say he does have an independent streak.
The Labor Department took on a central role in the Obama administration, taking the lead on some of the White House’s most consequential reforms, such as the overtime regulations that are now in limbo. That role will be greatly reduced in the Trump era, with a White House that wants to undo the administrative state.
The agency’s core responsibilities, such as investigating minimum wage violations, fall on career civil servants and will continue as usual. But they may be given fewer resources, and there have already been signs that enforcement may be less aggressive under Trump. The Labor Department has all but stopped issuing press releases when employers are caught endangering workers, which was a major deterrent tactic during the Obama years.
It remains to be seen what Trump and Acosta will do regarding overtime. Obama tried to change the rules so that more salaried workers are guaranteed time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. His changes would have brought overtime protections to an estimated 4.2 million additional workers.
During his hearing, Acosta said Obama’s change may have been too drastic, suggesting he would pare it back to please employers. “We now see an update [Obama’s] that is a very large revision,” he told Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “Something that needs to be considered is the impact it has on the economy.”