House Workforce Committee Picks Bring Labor Experience

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By Tyrone Richardson

House Democratic leadership is tapping members with labor roots for the workforce committee as part of their strategy to challenge Republicans seeking to unwind many of the Obama administration’s labor regulations, including the overtime rule.

The caucus chose five new members for the House Education and the Workforce Committee for the new Congress. That includes bolstering real-life labor expertise with Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), a former Delaware labor secretary, and Donald Norcross (N.J.), a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO.

This Congress, both sides are ratcheting up labor experience on the 40-member panel, which is tasked with presiding over education and labor issues.

As for Democrats, Norcross and Blunt Rochester, in particular, bring a “very rare” level of knowledge about issues that will be coming before the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the panel’s ranking member, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30.

“We assume that a lot of executive orders and regulations that have been enacted in the last eight years will be considered, and people who have a background and know the ins and outs of issues will be very helpful to the committee,” Scott said.

Both Parties Bolstering Labor Experience

The new committee assignments come as Republicans, who hold the majority in the House, are planning to undo a range of Obama administration labor initiatives. That includes the Labor Department’s pending overtime rule, conflict-of-interest restrictions for retirement investment advisers and the National Labor Relations Board’s expanded joint employer liability standard.

As for Republicans, they have labor-savvy committee members such as Rep. Bradley Byrne (Ala.), a former labor lawyer who was recently named chairman of the panel’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee. The party’s leadership added six new members to the committee this Congress, including Lloyd Smucker (Pa.), a businessman who served as a member of the Pennsylvania state Senate and vice-chair of its Labor & Industry Committee.

Smucker lauded his state Senate experience as good preparation for the workforce committee.

“As a member of the Labor & Industry Committee and chair of the Education Committee in the Pennsylvania state Senate, I am keenly aware that a good education and a well-trained workforce are vital to our economy and are both means by which the American Dream can be accessible to all,” Smucker told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 31.

As for committee assignments, both parties generally tap members based on a series of factors, including seniority and geographic diversity. The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee recommends names, which are then voted on. A labor background hasn’t necessarily been a key factor for assignment to the workforce committee, but ties to labor have been common.

“On the Democratic side, this committee has always been a magnet for strong liberals with close ties to labor and unions or the educational sphere,” Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “These two lawmakers’ labor background (and with it knowledge and interest) makes them prime suspects for seeking out service on this committee.”

Norcross, also an electrician, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 26 that the committee assignment is a “continuation of my lifelong fight to defend hard-working men and women and to ensure every American has the dignity of a good paying job.”

“There are more than 200 lawyers in Congress, but only one electrician,” he said in an e-mail. “I lit bridges across New Jersey. Now I’m working to build bridges in Congress—to bring Republicans and Democrats, labor and business interests together—to help American workers.”

Labor Knowledge a Help for Democrats?

The challenges ahead for Democrats mean that Norcross and Blunt Rochester are an easy choice for the committee since they “have perspectives and qualifications that most of their colleagues do not have,” Will Brucher, a labor history professor at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 26.

“Given her background as Delaware secretary of labor, public policy expertise and involvement in labor, education and women issues as well, it’s not surprising that Democratic leadership put Rep. Blunt Rochester in that committee,” Brucher said. “I think it is very important that from the Democratic Party and its leadership’s standpoint to have such members on the committee because a lot of Democrats and constituents are worried about the agendas of Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder.”

In addition to Norcross and Blunt Rochester, new Democrats on the committee include Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.) and Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.). Republicans added to the committee include Drew Ferguson (Ga.), Tom Garrett (Va.), Jason Lewis (Minn.), Paul Mitchell (Mich.) and Francis Rooney (Fla.). Republicans have one open committee seat that will be filled by the party’s steering committee, workforce committee spokeswoman Bethany Aronhalt told Bloomberg BNA.

Bloomberg BNA was unable to immediately reach Blunt Rochester for comment.

A spokesman for the congresswoman referred Bloomberg BNA to a Jan. 11 written statement announcing the committee assignment. In the statement, Blunt Rochester said the committee assignment will allow her to apply the “knowledge I gained from my time as Delaware’s Secretary of Labor.”

“I understand all too well the challenges people are facing in their efforts to find good-paying jobs as well as the struggles business leaders have in finding the skilled employees they need for their businesses to grow and thrive,” she said in the statement.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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