Lack of Labor Secretary Delays Budget Talks With Congress

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By Ben Penn

The Labor Department’s lack of a leader has it lagging behind other agencies during early stages of congressional budget negotiations, the top-ranking House labor appropriator told Bloomberg BNA.

It’s “a real problem,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said after adjourning a March 9 hearing. “We’re trying to schedule something with labor right now, which doesn’t necessarily require the labor secretary, but clearly it’s much more difficult if you don’t have leadership over there yet.”

Cole is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee tasked with funding the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. He said he has already met with top officials at Education and HHS but hasn’t been able to schedule a meeting with anyone at the DOL. The chairman added that he’s sympathetic with the administration for the delays because of the Senate “foot-dragging.”

Cole plans to meet with senior career officials at the DOL to get their views on how to prioritize its budget. He said he would discuss the budget with labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta after he’s confirmed.

However, the calendar appears to be causing a problem. Both Cole and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), told Bloomberg BNA March 9 they’ve heard that the president’s brief DOL budget request should reach them around March 16, before a tentative late-March hearing. Acosta’s initial Senate committee hearing will be on March 15, and it’s unclear how long it will take for the committee to vote and move his nomination to the Senate floor.

The “skinny budget” submission is expected to be light on specifics when it reaches Congress and the public next week. The president’s full budget request will likely be released in “late spring,” Jennifer Hing, a subcommittee spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA via email.

Education and HHS have had secretaries in place since February. President Donald Trump’s first labor secretary pick, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination Feb. 15. Acosta was nominated the following day.

“DOL is operating business as usual,” Jillian Rogers, a department spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA in an email. Management attorneys involved in pending cases against the DOL recently cited several examples of scenarios where the void in leadership has hampered agency operations, as career leaders await policy directions. Press releases on enforcement actions have entirely ceased.

DOL on the Chopping Block

The void of a confirmed DOL leader won’t affect the White House’s desire to reduce the agency’s budget, DeLauro told Bloomberg BNA.

“I submit to you with or without a cabinet secretary, the administration is going to come in with guns blazing to cut back on what is in our portfolio,” the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat said.

The White House is asking for significant cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, meaning the question for the DOL appears not to be whether appropriations will be slashed, but by how much.

DeLauro said she’s expecting Republicans to return to the philosophy the party had under President George W. Bush, when enforcement agencies like the Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration operated at reduced capacity.

“They’re going to do what they do; they’re very consistent,” DeLauro said of the GOP. “They don’t really care much about workplace safety, they don’t care about wage theft.”

Cole said it’s premature to speculate how various DOL subagencies will be funded in fiscal year 2018.

Inspector Says Cuts Add to Challenges

DeLauro and Cole spoke after their subcommittee hearing on the management challenges at the DOL, Education and HHS.

Ongoing operational hurdles at the Labor Department will swell if budget cuts are carried out under Trump, Scott Dahl, the agency’s inspector general, said in his testimony.

Cole tried to get Dahl to specify how a potential spending reduction would be absorbed by the department.

“It’s difficult to come at this from a theoretical perspective,” Dahl said. “The challenges I identified this morning will only be compounded by fewer resources.”

Dahl briefed the lawmakers on the agency’s difficulties, such as violence at DOL-funded Job Corps centers and improper unemployment insurance payments. The IG, confirmed in 2013, oversees independent audits of DOL programs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@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

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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