Acosta, a principled, conservative pick, could move the department into the modern era. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was visiting the Washington Examiner’s office Thursday when news broke President Trump was nominating Alexander Acosta to be secretary of Labor. To say he was pleased puts it mildly.
“I really like him,” Lee said. “He’s a good strong conservative, understands the law … He’s one of these people who will study the law and understand what is within his power and what isn’t. He’ll be a straight shooter.”
Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first nominee, who withdrew from contention on Wednesday, might have become a fine Labor secretary. But Acosta, to whom the president then turned, is probably an upgrade. He is dean of the Florida International University law school and a former U.S. Attorney. He is an experienced labor and employment lawyer whose conservative pedigree, education and experience in government are impeccable. Perhaps his personal net worth will drag down the average of the cabinet in an administration stocked with billionaires, but that’s probably a good thing, as is the fact that no one will be able to say Trump didn’t appoint any qualified Hispanic nominees.
There are clear virtues to having people with experience as top business executives in government. For all the arguments there might have been against any of Trump’s nominees from the top level of the business world, Puzder, Rex Tillerson, Steve Mnuchin, Linda McMahon, Wilber Ross, their business experience was always a positive. It often brings a perspective to government lacking among most of those who serve there. Obama’s cabinet was a lot lighter on top-level business experience, even as the non-profit, academic, military, political, central banking and legal worlds were well-represented.
But Trump’s administration won’t suffer from that problem for the loss of one chief executive. What it could use more of is political and ideological grounding. Acosta, a former clerk for Justice Samuel Alito, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and appointee to the National Labor Relations Board under President George W. Bush, is an excellent pick in this respect. Trump’s administration needs someone to hit the ground running at 200 Constitution Ave. who is not only a principled conservative, but who also already understands the sort of labor issues the department routinely handles.
Most importantly, the Labor Department needs a complete change of direction after the radical leftist stewardship of former Secretary Tom Perez. Contrary to the impression that Obama’s labor secretaries seemed to have, the department is not supposed to be the voice in government for union bosses’ political priorities. It is supposed to be the unions’ regulator and a government guarantor of labor peace. Acosta will be able to pick up right where former Secretary Elaine Chao left off in 2009 in performing the department’s most essential function: Increasing labor unions’ transparency and accountability to their members.
But the Department of Labor isn’t just about unions, whose relevance is waning. For the next generation, employment will mean something completely different. The old model of a career in which one worked for a single company, or even for a few sequentially, all one’s working life, is increasingly obsolete. Someone knowledgeable will need to help government adapt to and let flourish, rather than stifle, the changes that are being brought about by a newly revitalized freelance economy.
Although a long-needed thorough reform of U.S. labor laws might be more than anyone can reasonably hope for, Acosta will have a terrific opportunity to help the Labor Department move into the modern world.