Senate confirms Labor Secretary Acosta

Senate confirms Labor Secretary Acosta
© Keren Carrion

The Senate confirmed one of the final members of President Trump’s Cabinet, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, on Thursday.

Acosta, Trump’s second choice to run the Labor Department, was confirmed Thursday evening by a 60-38 vote, just ahead of the president's 100th day in office. 

The former Republican member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) takes the helm of the Labor Department at a time when worker tensions are rising across America.

Trump promised to address these issues on the campaign trail, but so far his labor agenda has gotten off to a rocky start.

Trump scrambled to find a replacement after his first pick to run the Labor Department, restaurant executive Andrew Puzder, dropped out in February. Trump nominated Acosta the following day.

Given his labor background, Acosta is seen by both Republicans and Democrats as a better fit for the position.

After his confirmation, Trump's pick for U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, is now the final Cabinet-level nominee awaiting Senate confirmation. The Senate Finance Committee approved Lighthizer on Tuesday, moving his nomination to the full Senate for approval.

Acosta will have a profound impact on labor policy in America at a time when the Labor Department is wrestling with a handful of Obama-era regulations.

Trump’s Labor Department delayed the so-called fiduciary rule, ordering financial advisers to act in the best interest of clients who are saving for retirement, until June. But Acosta will face pressure from Republicans to rewrite the retirement standards for financial advisers.

The Obama administration claimed the fiduciary rule protects workers from being swindled out of their retirement savings. But Republicans argue it will raise the cost of retirement advice, forcing low-income workers out of the market.

Acosta also faces a difficult decision with the overtime rule.

President Obama doubled the overtime threshold, so that workers making up to $47,476 per year qualify to be paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week. But business groups are challenging the rule in court.

Acosta could simply drop the Labor Department’s defense of the rule in court. During his confirmation hearing, Acosta signaled he would like to rewrite the rule to increase the overtime threshold from what it used to be ($23,660), but not as high as the Obama administration set it.

Acosta was seen as a safer pick than Puzder, who faced criticism from his own workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants. Puzder also received backlash over his ex-wife’s resurfaced accusation that he abused her, which she later recanted.

For these reasons, Puzder faced sharp opposition from Democrats, and as more of these revelations came out, even some Republicans began to distance themselves from Trump’s original Labor pick. 

Puzder withdrew his nomination after it became apparent he did not have enough Republican support to be confirmed by the Senate.

Acosta, on the other hand, has been confirmed by the Senate in the past to become the U.S. attorney in Florida, lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and to his seat on the NLRB.

While Democrats are relieved to be debating any Labor nominee other than Puzder, many have still expressed concerns with Acosta’s record.

In particular, some Democrats questioned why as a U.S. attorney, Acosta cut a plea deal with a billionaire accused of sexually abusing a minor.

Acosta defended the decision, arguing that the case against the billionaire may not have been strong enough to convict him.

Others raised concerns about a politically-motivated hiring scheme run by one of Acosta’s deputies during his time at the DOJ.

During his confirmation hearing, Acosta took responsibility for the hiring decisions that happened under his watch, even though he has previously suggested he had no knowledge of the situation at the time.

In light of these revelations, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) raised concerns about whether Acosta would stand up to the president to protect workers.

“The Department of Labor is an agency whose job it is to stand up for the workers in this country, their safety, making sure they get the pay they’ve earned,” Murray told The Hill. “I just do not feel comfortable Mr. Acosta is going to stand up to a Trump administration that, in my opinion, has not done that.” 

After an exchange during his confirmation hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she has “no confidence” in Acosta’s ability to lead the Labor Department. 

“I have to say, this has really been frustrating,” Warren told Acosta.

“If you can’t give me straight answers ... I don’t have any confidence you’re the right person for this job.”

Updated: 7:19 p.m.