Changes Ahead for Labor Committee Leadership?

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By Chris Opfer

Aug. 29 — At least some changes will happen at the top of Congress’s labor committees next year, but it’s not exactly clear what the shuffling will mean for the actual work the panels do.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.) is expected to become the top Republican on the House Education and the Workforce Committee after current Chairman John Kline (Minn.) retires at the end of the year. Election-related moves by Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) could also open up Democratic leadership positions on the committee and its Senate counterpart.

“I think there’s tremendous possibility for change when you see a new chairman come in,” Patrick Lyden, president of Washington-based lobbying firm Current Government Relations, told Bloomberg BNA. “But you also have to make a judgment about what you can do with the committee you have, the leadership that you have and the kind of government you have.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats and raised his profile with an unsuccessful White House bid, has already said he wants Murray’s seat if she moves to the Appropriations Committee in January. Reps. Susan Davis (Calif.) and Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) are near the front of the line to succeed Scott if he’s tapped to fill vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) Senate seat.

Committee members have largely been in lockstep on labor issues down the party line, but observers told Bloomberg BNA new leadership may shift the panels’ priorities. Foxx and Sanders—if Democrats win control of the Senate—are both likely to try to steer the panels further away from the center on workforce issues.

Still, divided government is expected to continue to limit how far legislation goes after moving through the committees.

‘Aggressive’ Sanders Agenda Expected

Just how much movement takes place among the committee chairs and ranking members depends on a variety of factors, including what happens at the ballot box in November.

If Democrats take back control of the Senate, Murray is believed to be among the top contenders to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) at the Appropriations Committee helm. That could clear a path for Sanders, who along with Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) has the most tenure among returning Democratic members, to take control of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Sanders would be likely to use the chairmanship as a way to push many of the issues that he highlighted during his White House run. That includes moves to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, enhance workers’ collective bargaining rights and require employers to offer paid leave.

Sanders also told Bloomberg BNA during his White House run that he would work to revive “card check” legislation, if elected. A card check bill that passed in the House in 2007 would have nixed the requirement that union elections be conducted by secret ballot.

Those kinds of measures would probably get enough support to move through the HELP Committee if Democrats control the panel in the next Congress. Chamber filibuster rules—requiring 60 votes to move legislation on the floor—and a likely Republican-controlled House would pose significant hurdles to getting bills signed into law, however.

“I’m sure that Bernie Sanders has an agenda in mind that would probably be pretty aggressive,” Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s government affairs director, told Bloomberg BNA. “He could probably get it through the committee, but the floor is a different story.”

It also remains to be seen whether Murray would actually jump to the Appropriations Committee helm if given the chance. Samuel and Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA they wouldn’t be surprised if Murray opted to stay with the HELP Committee.

“In the past, it was a no-brainer that any member would want to run Appropriations in their chamber,” Eisenbrey said. “But budget caps and domestic discretionary spending limits make it a less powerful job than it once was.”

Eisenbrey served as counsel to the HELP Committee Democrats from 1995 to 1996. Samuel worked for the Labor Department in the Clinton administration and was a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore before moving to the AFL-CIO.

Business Groups Like Foxx

Like Sanders, Foxx is also seen as more ideologically entrenched than Kline, the current Education and the Workforce Committee chairman.

Foxx told Bloomberg BNA in 2015 that the National Labor Relations Act “is a 1930s law that should never have been passed, and is a big problem.” The law governs union representation elections and protects employees who engage in covered organizing activities.

Foxx has an 80 percent lifetime voting score from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as of 2015 and a 100 percent score from the National Federation of Independent Business on key votes during this Congress. She gets a 7 percent lifetime score from the AFL-CIO on what the organization has deemed key votes.

“Obviously Virginia Foxx is a leader in the House,” NFIB spokesman Andrew Wimer told Bloomberg BNA. “She’s been very strong on small-business issues.”

Foxx is a member of the Republican Study Committee, which promotes limited government and “traditional values,” according to its website. She also served as co-chair of the GOP’s platform committee, which in July approved a party agenda that includes calls for national right-to-work legislation.

Relationships, Timing Key

Across the aisle, Scott is seen as a frontrunner to replace Kaine in the Senate if Kaine joins Hillary Clinton in the White House next year. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) would appoint Kaine’s replacement, and supporters are already lobbying for Scott.

Davis and Grijalva have been on the Education and the Workforce panel longest among Democrats expected to return next year.

Davis is a moderate lawmaker who prides herself on working behind the scenes and reaching across the aisle. Grijalva, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been more outspoken on workers’ rights issues.

Republicans are expected to retain their control of the House next year.

Current Government Relations' Lyden was a staffer for Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.) when Goodling led the Education and the Workforce Committee and later for John Boehner (R-Ohio) when he took over the same role. The chairperson’s relationship with the ranking member can go a long way in determining how much work the committee gets done, he said.

“Every committee chairman wants to accomplish something: You want to make your mark and this is your opportunity,” Lyden said. “I think circumstances and environment help determine whether that happens.”

Bloomberg BNA conducted interviews for this story from Aug. 18 to Aug. 29.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at

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