Congressional Labor Policy Staff Moves Haven’t Shifted Focus

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By Tyrone Richardson

Liz Watson, a lawyer and labor policy director for Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, recently left the congressional post to be closer to family in Indiana—and run for elected office. She’s part of a growing list of labor policy specialists to move out of the Capitol in recent months.

Other exits this Congress include Ed Gilroy, who was the workforce policy director for Republicans on the House committee for more than 15 years. The Senate recently confirmed Kyle Fortson as President Donald Trump’s nominee for the National Mediation Board. Fortson was the labor policy director for the Republicans on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions since 2010.

The personnel moves come as Republicans anxiously look to advance an agenda to reverse several Obama-era regulations and other moves. That includes the Labor Department’s overtime rule and a 2015 National Labor Relations Board decision that expanded joint employer liability for affiliated businesses.

Watson, Gilroy and other specialists often play key roles in crafting legislation and shaping lawmakers’ positions on issues. Still, congressional staffing changes are typical on the Hill and the moves not expected to affect labor policies coming through the committees, political observers told Bloomberg Law.

“I don’t think there is anything unusual in this type of post-election, post-new administration shuffling by congressional committee staffers,” Lance Compa, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg Law. “It’s re-set time for a lot of people who want to move on to something new and different.”

Watson, strongly backed by the Communications Workers of America and other labor unions, is among the five Democrats seeking the chance to unseat freshman Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R) in the Republican-leaning district. Her bid to represent Indiana’s 9th Congressional District continues a fight to shape policies for the economy to “work for the working people instead of the special interests,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Staffing Changes ‘Will Not Affect Policy’

“I don’t think these moves by individuals will affect policy,” Compa said. “Obviously, new policy approaches are already happening, but that is due to the change from a Democratic to a Republican White House and related executive branch appointments down the line.”

Similar comments were echoed by congressional committee staff, who told Bloomberg Law that the elected leaders like House Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) set legislative priorities.

Gilroy, the panel’s former workplace policy director, left in September to become the American Trucking Associations’ senior vice president of legislative affairs. He was replaced by Rob Green, the former executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Green joined as the committee was preparing to mark up the Save Local Business ( H.R. 3441), a measure that would limit the extent to which affiliated businesses are considered joint employers for wage-and-hour, safety, and other kinds of potential employment liability, as well as collective bargaining purposes. That measure Oct. 4 was advanced by the committee in a party-line vote and later passed in the House. The joint employer bill is just one of several measures that have moved through the committee this year.

The Senate HELP Committee, however, has been largely involved in non-legislative issues. The panel has focused instead on other issues like reforming health care and helping confirm President Donald Trump’s nominations for agency leadership roles.

Fortson’s position has not been filled as of Nov. 21.

There are no hiccups expected as a result of Fortson leaving the HELP Committee, partly because the committee has been preparing since Trump announced her nomination in June, a committee official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Bloomberg Law.

As for Watson, her House position has been filled by Richard D. Miller, who was previously a senior labor policy adviser for committee Democrats.

Watson Campaign Supported by Unions

Watson is hoping that a congressional campaign with a strong focus on workforce, health care, and education will help her defeat fellow Democrats in the primaries and Hollingsworth later in the year. She’s also teaching law and policy at Indiana University.

Watson has about $169,000 in her campaign fund, which includes large support of labor unions such as CWA, United Food and Commercial Workers, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, according to the latest federal campaign disclosures.

“I’m the only candidate with this type of labor support in this primary and it’s very unusual,” Watson said, adding that she’s hopeful that will drum up votes in her favor.

Watson tops all Democratic candidates for cash on hand as of Sept. 30. She still pales in comparison to Hollingsworth, who reported about $249,000 in his war chest at that time.

Hollingsworth, a multimillionaire businessman, in 2016 defeated Monroe County Council member and former Miss America contestant Shelli Yoder (D) by about 14 points. The district, which was previously represented by now-Sen. Todd Young (R), leaned heavily Republican during the presidential election that year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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