Trump Labor pick to testify he's 'on the side of the law'

(Bloomberg) – Trump’s latest nominee for secretary of labor, R. Alexander Acosta, plans to tout his "paycheck to paycheck" upbringing at his confirmation hearing Wednesday morning, and he’ll promise to fairly enforce the law.

"As a former prosecutor, I will always be on the side of the law and not any particular constituency," Acosta will tell the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to an advance copy of his opening statement.

Trump tapped Acosta Feb. 16 to replace his first nominee, CKE Restaurants Inc. CEO Andrew Puzder, who withdrew amid controversies including his past employment of an undocumented housekeeper, a domestic-abuse accusation in his divorce proceedings and alleged labor law violations at CKE’s Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. brands.

Acosta arrives with much less personal controversy. He’s also been less outspoken than Puzder, a frequent media commentator, about Labor Department issues like the fate of President Barack Obama’s rule making millions more employees eligible for overtime, which a Texas judge has blocked.

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R. Alexander Acosta

Acosta, the Florida International University law school dean, describes in his opening statement how his parents fled Cuba in search of freedom, then worked as a typist and inventory clerk to support him. "They were able to give me opportunities they did not have because even though they didn’t attend college, they had something very important -- they had jobs," he says.

Acosta will emphasize his concern about the so-called "skills gap" between workers’ skills and employers’ needs; his commitment to enforce workplace safety laws; and his intent to be an "advocate for the American workforce" within the Trump administration. He cites the support his nomination has drawn from some unions familiar with his past government work.

"They know that while we did not always agree on the outcome, I always listened and sought principled solutions," he will say, according to his testimony.

Committee chairman Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, devoted part of his opening remarks at the hearing to criticizing the Obama administration for having "unleashed a regulatory avalanche that held job creators back."

Citing Obama labor regulations in areas like overtime and financial adviser conflicts of interest, he said they had created “a big, wet blanket of costs” for business. Alexander praised Acosta as a nominee "who understands how a good-paying job is critical to helping workers realize the American dream for themselves and for their families."

Some Democrats aren’t sold. "Your career has included little engagement with labor law, regulation and enforcement, and, to my knowledge, you have not conveyed your views on federal labor law in public statements or publications to any significant extent," Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the committee’s Democrats, said in a letter to Acosta released Tuesday seeking answers to a battery of questions about his record and plans.

Warren said she was eager to hear more about Acosta’s views.

"I am very concerned about the possibility that you will simply fall in line with President Trump’s anti-worker statements and policies, which would be disastrous for the millions of American workers who rely on the Department of Labor’s enforcement of labor law," she said.

Before taking the law school job, Acosta was appointed by George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate for three past positions: member of the National Labor Relations Board, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and U.S. attorney.

"There are a lot of blank spots in the Trump administration’s agenda about incredibly important issues that make a huge difference to working families," said Portia Wu, a former assistant secretary at the Labor Department under Obama. "And we really need to know what they’re planning. So this hearing is an important opportunity to try to get some answers to those questions."

Along with labor policy issues, Acosta could face questions about past controversies in his career such as alleged politicized hiring during his time at the Justice Department, and a plea deal for billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein he oversaw as a U.S. attorney.

‘Serious Doubts’

Patty Murray, the committee’s ranking Democrat, signaled doubts about Acosta after meeting with him March 9. “As I continue to review Mr. Acosta’s record, I have serious concerns about his ability to be a strong champion for workers’ basic rights,” the Washington senator said in a statement. But with Democrats in the minority, and little in Acosta’s record to alarm Republicans, liberals have little chance of stopping Acosta even if they want to.

Labor groups, who helped defeat Puzder, have been far more conciliatory toward his replacement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka last month told Fox Business Network he likes Acosta “much more” than Puzder, and “he deserves absolute serious consideration.” A few unions, including the Laborers International Union of North America and the International Association of Fire Fighters, have already endorsed Acosta’s nomination.

“Some of the earlier reviews by some labor organizations were positive, so that’s significant,” Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania told Bloomberg BNA March 9. “But I have to dig into it more.”

Along with broad GOP support, Acosta’s nomination has been endorsed by one of the Democrats who isn’t on the committee: His home state senator Bill Nelson.

"I’m figuring he might get 80, 90 votes in the Senate," attorney Ed Foulke, who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President George W. Bush, said last month.