La­bor nom­i­nee frus­trates Democrats

At Se­nate hear­ing, R. Alexan­der Acosta dodges ques­tions on key work­place rules.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Jim Puz­zanghera jim.puz­zanghera @la­times.com Twit­ter: @JimPuz­zanghera

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump’s sec­ond nom­i­nee for La­bor sec­re­tary, law school dean R. Alexan­der Acosta, frus­trated Democrats at his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing Wed­nes­day by dodg­ing ques­tions about how he would han­dle some key work­place rules en­acted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But Acosta, a for­mer Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial, had strong sup­port from Repub­li­cans dur­ing the hear­ing be­fore the Se­nate Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, and he ap­peared on track for con­fir­ma­tion.

That was a sharp con­trast to Trump’s first pick for the job, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia fast-food ex­ec­u­tive Andy Puzder, who with­drew last month af­ter some GOP sen­a­tors balked at vot­ing for him amid a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sies. On Tues­day, Puzder said he is step­ping down as chief ex­ec­u­tive of CKE Restau­rants.

Acosta is a much more con­ven­tional pick than the out­spo­ken and flam­boy­ant Puzder.

The dean of the law school at Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity in Mi­ami since 2009, Acosta acted like a lawyer in cau­tiously an­swer­ing some tough ques­tions.

Sen. La­mar Alexan­der (R-Tenn.), the com­mit­tee’s chair­man, cited Acosta’s ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing been con­firmed twice be­fore by the Se­nate for fed­eral jobs as a rea­son why the hear­ing “went very well.”

“I have no doubt you’ll be con­firmed,” Alexan­der told him at the end of the three­hour hear­ing.

If that hap­pens, Acosta would be the only Latino in Trump’s Cab­i­net.

Acosta told sen­a­tors that the ex­pe­ri­ences of his par­ents, Cuban im­mi­grants who lived “pay­check to pay­check,” taught him the value of hav­ing a job. He pledged to push for in­creased op­por­tu­ni­ties and en­force work­place safety rules.

“Help­ing Amer­i­cans find good jobs, safe jobs, should not be a par­ti­san is­sue,” Acosta said.

He also said he would not bow to “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” po­lit­i­cal pres­sure and sug­gested he would re­sign if he be­lieved he could not fol­low a di­rec­tive from Trump.

But Democrats pressed Acosta about his record as a Jus­tice of­fi­cial and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, as well as his views on Obama ini­tia­tives to ex­pand over­time pay, place new re­quire­ments on re­tire­ment ad­vi­sors and pro­tect work­ers from ex­po­sure to po­ten­tially deadly sil­ica dust.

Some of the tough­est ques­tions came from Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (DMass.), who helped lead the fight against Puzder.

Af­ter telling Acosta she was glad he was Trump’s nom­i­nee in­stead of Puzder, War­ren told him, “the test for sec­re­tary of La­bor is not are you bet­ter than Andrew Puzder. The test is will you stand up for 150 mil­lion Amer­i­can work­ers.”

War­ren tried to get Acosta to com­mit to not weak­en­ing the sil­ica dust rule, to fight a legal stay of the ex­panded over­time re­quire­ments and to give his view on the re­tire­ment ad­vi­sors rule. He would not.

Acosta cited ex­ec­u­tive or­ders by Trump for cab­i­net sec­re­taries to re­view ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions and one specif­i­cally di­rect­ing the La­bor Depart­ment to look at the re­tire­ment ad­vi­sors rule. Known as the fidu­ciary rule, it re­quires in­vest­ment bro­kers who han­dle re­tire­ment funds to put their clients’ in­ter­ests ahead of other fac­tors, such as their own com­pen­sa­tion or com­pany prof­its.

The La­bor Depart­ment has de­layed im­ple­men­ta­tion of the rule, which was set to take ef­fect next month, to con­duct the re­view.

Acosta said he would have to fol­low the ex­ec­u­tive order.

War­ren said he was dodg­ing ques­tions that she in­di­cated she would ask af­ter a meet­ing two weeks ago.

“If you can’t give me straight an­swers on your views on this, not hide be­hind an ex­ec­u­tive order…. Then I don’t have any con­fi­dence you’re the right per­son for this job,” she said.

In re­sponse to ques­tion­ing from other sen­a­tors, Acosta in­di­cated he was in fa­vor of in­creas­ing the thresh­old for over­time pay.

In 2015, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion moved to more than dou­ble the an­nual salary thresh­old of $23,660, above which work­ers qual­ify for over­time pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. It hadn’t been raised since 2004 and is not ad­justed each year for in­fla­tion. “I think it’s un­for­tu­nate that rules that in­volve dol­lar val­ues can go more than a decade with­out up­dat­ing,” he said, not­ing that leads to large in­creases that can dis­rupt busi­nesses.

He ac­knowl­edged Repub­li­can con­cerns about the new an­nual over­time thresh­old of $47,476, which was fi­nal­ized by the La­bor Depart­ment last spring. In Novem­ber, a Texas fed­eral judge blocked the rule from go­ing into ef­fect.

Acosta noted that a sim­ple cost of liv­ing ad­just­ment would move the thresh­old to about $33,000 and sug­gested he might be open to that. But when pressed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Acosta would not be pinned down.

No Repub­li­can on the com­mit­tee in­di­cated any prob­lems with his nom­i­na­tion.

But some Democrats in ad­di­tion to War­ren ex­pressed con­cerns about Acosta, who was head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Civil Rights Di­vi­sion from 2003 to 2005 un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

Acosta was crit­i­cized in a 2008 in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port for not suf­fi­ciently su­per­vis­ing a sub­or­di­nate whose hir­ing de­ci­sions “fa­vored ap­pli­cants with con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions and dis­fa­vored ap­pli­cants with civil rights or hu­man rights ex­pe­ri­ence whom he con­sid­ered to be overly lib­eral.”

Sen. Patty Mur­ray (DWash.) told Acosta that he “at best ig­nored an ex­tra­or­di­nary politi­ciza­tion of the work of this crit­i­cal di­vi­sion — and at worst, ac­tively fa­cil­i­tated it.”

Acosta promised her he would not al­low po­lit­i­cal views to be con­sid­ered in the hir­ing of staffers.

“That con­duct should not have hap­pened,” he said. “It hap­pened on my watch … and I deeply re­gret it.”

Af­ter serv­ing in the Jus­tice Depart­ment, Acosta be­came U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern District of Florida.

Win McNamee Getty Images

SEN. PATTY MUR­RAY (D-Wash.), left, greets La­bor sec­re­tary nom­i­nee R. Alexan­der Acosta be­fore his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing. Democrats pressed Acosta about his record as a Jus­tice of­fi­cial and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor.

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