More than one Trump nominee has vowed, at Senate confirmation, to "speak truth to power." Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta, notably, did not.
Acosta told the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Wednesday that Cabinet members “work for the president, and we will all ultimately follow his direction unless we feel that we can’t."
Senate Democrats grilled Acosta, in vain, about whether he would preserve Obama Labor Department regulations governing overtime pay, health and safety, and retirement.
Acosta repeatedly declined to express his views, citing President Donald Trump’s instructions that Cabinet members review all regulations for possible elimination or modification.
Acosta came closest to expressing an opinion on the subject of overtime.
Last year, President Obama's administration issued a final rule that doubled (to $47,476) the salary threshold under which virtually all workers are guaranteed time-and-a-half pay if they work more than 40 hours in a given week.
A federal judge enjoined the rule, preventing it from taking effect. The Obama administration appealed that decision, but the Trump administration is not expected to continue the appeal.
Noting that the overtime rule “hasn’t been updated since 2004,” Acosta seemed to suggest he'd favor some increase in the salary threshold.
But he also said he had “serious questions” about the Labor secretary’s authority to increase the threshold as high as $47,476. That “goes beyond a cost of living adjustment," he said, and suggested an inflation-adjusted threshold would be about $33,000.
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute quickly disputed Acosta on DOL's authority to increase the overtime threshold.
"The Labor Department has exercised this authority since 1938," it said in a written statement, "and has done so under 10 presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush."
Acosta declined to answer Sen. Elizabeth Warren when she asked whether he would keep a Labor Department regulation that drastically reduced workers’ exposure to crystalline silica dust, which kills more workers on an annualized basis than die in coal mine accidental deaths in coal mines.
Citing Trump's directive to review regulations, Acosta told senators he “[could not] make a commitment” to preserving the rule, which was four decades in the making.
“You’ve refused to answer my questions," Warren complained, "hiding behind an executive order that President Trump issued asking agency heads to review pending regulations."
Asked by Sen. Al Franken how he would address the looming insolvency of the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund, Acosta replied, “I have not proposed a plan" and declined to say whether he would trim workers’ pensions to restore the pension fund to solvency.
The Treasury Department was presented with such a plan in May and declined, amid election-year political pressures, to approve it.
“This is an issue that this Congress has been working on for years,” Acosta said of multi-employer pension funds like Central States, many of which are approaching insolvency.
“I wish I could commit to that — that has a $60 billion price tag ... and if you expand it further to include city and state pension funds, you’re talking about approximately a $2 trillion price tag.”
Acosta said he would review the Obama Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, as the department has already directed the Labor Department to do.
The rule requires broker-dealers to consider only the client’s best interest (and not fees or commissions) when providing retirement advice.
Critics of the rule say it exposes broker-dealers to class action lawsuits and would limit access to retirement advice. Earlier this month, the Labor Department proposed a 60-day delay to the rule.
“There is an executive action that directs how the Department of Labor will approach this rule,” Acosta said.
“If I am confirmed as secretary of labor, I believe and support my following executive orders of the president, who would be my boss.”
Acosta said the fiduciary rule “goes far beyond simply addressing the standard of conduct” of investment advisers, a characterization Warren disputed.
Senate Democrats grilled Acosta about his record as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, positions Acosta held under President George W. Bush.
HELP ranking member Patty Murray asked Acosta about a 2008 report from the Office of the Inspector General that found the division screened potential career hires based on partisan affiliation and political ideology, in violation of civil service law.
Acosta, who has always maintained he knew nothing of the screening at the time, answered that the “conduct should not have happened” and acknowledged that “it happened on [his] watch.”
If he were asked by Trump to hire civil servants based on their political views, Acosta said, he “[would] not allow it.”
Murray also asked Acosta about a letter he wrote in support of an Ohio statute that granted individual citizens the right to challenge voter eligibility, even though the DOJ was not a party in the case.
Acosta defended the letter, calling it “legally and substantively correct.”
Acosta’s supporters praised his confirmation hearing performance.
“Alex Acosta proved at this morning’s confirmation why he is extraordinarily qualified to lead the Department of Labor,” said Nathan Brand, press secretary for America Rising Squared, an arm of the Republican opposition group America Rising.
But worker advocates said his hearing left many questions unanswered.
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement that “we heard few details about how he would go about enforcement” and that Acosta “failed to commit to defending a regulation [i.e., the silica rule] that would prevent 600 deaths a year.”