Overshadowed by the high-octane wars over the Affordable Care Act and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the confirmation of Labor Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta is cruising toward a March 30 Senate committee vote with little fanfare. Yet Acosta’s acquiescence to President Trump’s labor agenda holds frightful if unheralded consequences for America’s workers, millions of them Trump supporters.
Positioned as a kinder, gentler conservative than Trump’s first labor nominee, fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder, Acosta nonetheless has deep roots in Republican politics. He clerked for Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito (when he was a federal circuit court judge), and did prominent time in George W. Bush’s administration as member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He also held two top posts in Bush’s Justice Department.
By numerous accounts, Acosta’s 8-month tenure at the NLRB displayed a mix of modest partisanship and occasional political independence. Although most of his decisions sided with the Republican majority on the five-member board, Democratic NLRB member Wilma Liebman characterizes Acosta as “independent, intelligent and not knee-jerk anti-union or anti-worker, or pro-business,” according to Politico.
However, as head of Bush’s Civil Rights Division, Acosta found himself in some trouble after he failed to stop his own deputy, Bradley S. Schlozman, from engaging in politically motivated hiring of unqualified attorneys, an inspector general report found. The report concluded that while Acosta claimed ignorance of this federal law-breaking under his watch, senior staff had alerted him to problems. As Senator Elizabeth Warren described in a letter to Acosta, “you failed to stop these egregious abuses. There is no ambiguity in the Inspector General’s conclusion that you ‘did not sufficiently supervise’ your own deputy.” Warren further skewered Acosta, adding: “Your management of the Civil Rights Division created a corrosive environment for the career attorneys dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”
Nonetheless, in contrast to Puzder, Acosta has so far sailed smoothly toward confirmation as a more qualified, less blatantly anti-worker choice tainted by fewer scandals. Perhaps due to outrage fatigue (or a post-Puzder “bigotry of low expectations,” to borrow a phrase from President George W. Bush) Acosta’s hearings have sparked minimal controversy. According to the Bureau of National Affairs, six of the 23 members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) “either didn’t speak or didn’t show, and most of the others fled the room without taking advantage of a second round of questions.”