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Monday morning musings for workplace watchers

By Chris Opfer and Ben Penn

DOL for Column

Stuck inside of Crystal City with the election blues again | Questions for Chris Lu | Congressional Committee Carousel

Welcome to the pilot edition of our weekly column. We’ll be using this space to comment on the major labor and employment developments we’re expecting each week, preview what we’re in the midst of reporting, and maybe even float a few rumors. This is still a work in progress. So we welcome your feedback on what you want to hear about--be it Chris’s advice on the best spot in the Capitol for staking out Lamar Alexander or Ben’s search for a racquetball partner at the Frances Perkins Building. Fire away over email: copfer@bna.com and bpenn@bna.com, or on Twitter: @ChrisOpfer and @BenjaminPenn.

In our official capacities, Ben reports on the Labor Department and Chris covers a little bit of everything else. This column marks our foray into uncharted territory. If we veer too far out of our lane, feel free to send help.

Chris Opfer: Election Day is less than 24 hours away. On Wednesday morning, we’ll wake up to a new president-elect (er … probably). We’ll also have a better idea of who’s going to be running the show in Congress for the next two years.

Baseball fans call the time after the World Series and before pitchers and catchers report to spring training the hot stove league. That’s when insiders, stat geeks and Vegas sharps trying to pick the next winner gather round the heating element to swap rumors about which teams are firing their managers, which players are likely to be traded and whether this is finally the year Fox Sports does us all a favor by putting Joe Buck out to pasture.

Here at Bloomberg Law headquarters, just over the river from the Capitol, we haven’t needed the stove much. Still, the prognosticating is heating up about who’s going where in 2017. Post-election moves will not only bring new blood to the White House, but also change some players at the Labor Department, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We don’t know who will steer the ship at those agencies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate about what they’ll do when they get there.

Ben Penn: Chris, does this mean we're now pundits? I should point out that perhaps we’re skipping a step talking about a possible labor chief. White House personnel could be selected before Cabinet secretaries, and there will be some labor-related openings, such as in the Domestic Policy Council. Whoever is appointed to that won’t assume the public profile of a labor secretary, but he or she will help shape the executive branch's workplace agenda for the next four years.

For a Clinton White House, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su has already been floated to lead DOL (more on that here). We’ve also heard some chatter about Ed Montgomery, who was Bill Clinton’s deputy labor secretary and is now dean of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Surely not coincidentally, Montgomery’s on leave from the Hoyas until after the election. If you want to tell us what you’ve been up to, Dean Montgomery, you know how to contact us. Also, could former Democratic Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller be ready to come out of retirement and return to Washington? 

I’d rather play craps at one of Trump’s casinos than place money on who’d be tapped as his labor secretary if he wins. He’s kept us in the dark on DOL policy specifics, outside of briefly calling for a small business carveout from the overtime rule.

It’s fair to assume a President Trump would take a far more hands-off regulatory approach. He’d probably return to the Dubya era of business partnerships and less stringent enforcement. Trump could look to a CEO-type for labor chief. Whoever it is, he or she likely wouldn’t be as simpatico with unions as the guy currently running the show.

There’s another name Clinton could consider, maybe just to hold down the fort temporarily. And he already has an office at DOL: current Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu

Before arriving at the agency in 2014, Lu had an interesting career arc – he was legislative director for Senator Barack Obama, executive director of candidate Obama’s presidential transition and then the president’s primary liaison to all Cabinet secretaries. 

What’s his next move? Well, I caught up with him last week and asked him just that. Lu chose not to announce his next job in this forum. But he did shed light on the DOL’s transition plans, which he’s heading up.

BP: Enforcement of the DOL’s controversial overtime regulation begins 23 days after the election, amid attempts to halt it in court and in Congress. How might that affect the transition process?

Lu: “We would start enforcing that on Dec. 1. I know this is a trite thing to say, but there’s only one president at a time. So as long as this president is in office, we will be defending our regulations in court and should they go into effect, we’ll be enforcing them. I can’t predict what the next secretary or the next president will choose to do.”

BP: What’s the status of DOL projects left in the docket that you might have run out of time to complete? 

Lu: “I really believe that one of the foremost issues of our time is the issue of income inequality…As we consider what the role of workers is in the 21st century, the Department of Labor can be an important contributor to that dialogue – through our grant funding, through our regulations, through our enforcement actions.” 

Ben Penn: My take – no matter who’s in the White House, DOL is still collecting data to play catchup on modern workforce trends, and the next DOL will need to adapt accordingly. 

More from the Lu interview here.

Chris Opfer: Ben, there’s also going to be a fair bit of shuffling on the two congressional committees that oversee worker issues on the hill. 

Just about everyone expects Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) to take over the House Ed/Workforce Committee reins from retiring John Kline. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) has emerged as the front-runner on the other side of the aisle to take Bobby Scott’s (Va.) committee leadership gig if Scott splits for Tim Kaine’s Senate seat. 

The game of thrones going on in the Senate is a little trickier to handicap. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is largely expected to stay on as the HELP Committee’s leading Republican. That is, unless he manages to get himself tapped for Appropriations chairman or ranking member. Richard Burr (N.C.) would be next in line in terms of Republican HELP seniority, but it’s still not clear whether the man leading the fight against socks in D.C. can get himself re-elected

The biggest question for HELP Democrats is whether Patty Murray will stick around or hop the next train to the Appropriations Committee. Murray, a former preschool teacher, is said to really like the HELP portfolio. But a chance to manage the purse strings might be too tough to pass up. Former presidential candidate and Larry David impersonator Bernie Sanders (Vt.) has already said he wants Murray’s committee leadership seat if it opens up. Bob Casey (Pa.) may also have something to say about that.

In the meantime, all the outgoing Congress has to do is come up with a way to keep the lights on at Uncle Sam’s place before the current government funding runs out in mid-December. And argue about the overtime rule. And maybe vote on the TPP. Should be no sweat.

We’ve got a few pre-election parties to try to sneak into, so we’re punching out for now. See you back here next Monday morning. (Daily Labor Report subscribers, you can get the full story on the election throughout the week.)

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