WASHINGTON – Three men from Buffalo, one absent and two present, were the targets of grilling from Republicans on a Senate committee Thursday over matters that sometimes seemed personal but in the end are profound for every working person in America.
The absent man was Thomas E. Perez, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Labor, which oversees everything from unemployment insurance to job training. The men who were there, Mark Gaston Pearce and Richard F. Griffin Jr., serve on the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that adjudicates workplace disputes, and are up for reconfirmation.
Republicans and Democrats disagree sharply on how the Labor Department and the NLRB ought to approach their duties, and those disagreements became clear during Thursday’s hearings before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
That panel sent Perez’s nomination to the Senate floor on a party-line 12-10 vote, but not before Republicans portrayed him as an aggressive attorney who went too far in cases before him as assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights and who would likely do the same as labor secretary.
Meanwhile, the committee postponed until Wednesday a vote on the Pearce and Griffin nominations after Republicans attacked Pearce for leading the NLRB in a pro-labor direction and questioned – as federal courts have – whether Griffin is legally serving on the board.
Democrats defended the three men as well-qualified public servants, but the hearings seemed to be proof that these days, the definition of a well-qualified public servant is different on the two sides of the partisan divide.
Witness, for example, the sharply different view of Perez offered by the top Republican and top Democrat on the HELP Committee.
“I will oppose voting Mr. Perez out of the HELP Committee for two reasons: Number one, my view of his record raises troubling questions about his actions while at the Department of Justice and his candor in discussing his actions with this committee,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s top Republican.
“Number two, congressional committees have asked for relevant and specific information that hasn’t been provided yet by the nominee or the administration.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, could not have offered more lavish praise for Perez.
“Perhaps most importantly, Tom Perez knows how to bring people together to make progress on even controversial issues, without burning bridges,” Harkin said. “He knows how to hit the ground running and quickly and effectively become an agent of real change. That is exactly the kind of leadership we need at the Department of Labor.”
While Democrats praised Perez’s record at the Department of Justice and as Maryland’s labor secretary, Republicans focused mostly on one incident in which Perez persuaded the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination case that it could have appealed to the Supreme Court and that could have potentially led to a result that would have made it harder for the government to file such cases.
In return for that agreement, the Justice Department vowed not to join two whistle-blower cases against St. Paul that, Republicans said, could have saved $200 million for U.S. taxpayers.
Perez has said the whistle-blower cases were bad ones for the Justice Department to get involved in, but Republicans said he overstepped his bounds in striking the deal.
“Mr. Perez’s involvement in this whole deal seems to me an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside the normal responsibilities of the assistant attorney general over the Civil Rights Division,” Alexander said.
But to Harkin, the Republican opposition to Perez is about something far larger than some obscure court cases from Minnesota.
“In short, Mr. Perez did his job at the Department of Justice, and he did it well,” Harkin said. “When it comes down to it, I think that fact is the source of most of the controversy surrounding his nomination: Some people don’t like Tom Perez precisely because he is passionate about enforcing our civil rights laws and has vigorously pursued such enforcement in his current position.”
The debate over Perez’s nomination now moves to the Senate floor, where Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has vowed to block the nomination.
“The Senate has plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Thomas Perez’s record,” Vitter said Thursday.
“But a major focus of mine is DOJ’s clear inconsistency around which part of the National Voter Registration Act should be enforced at the expense of Louisiana voters. I’ll be demanding a 60-vote threshold now that his nomination comes to the full Senate.”
All of which causes Democratic senators to, figuratively if not literally, roll their eyes.
“I’m the only one here who actually knows Mr. Perez,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who praised Perez as a leader on labor issues and noted that the Maryland Chamber of Commerce had praised him, too, as a public official capable of bringing competing interests together.
Competing interests also seemed to dominate the committee’s debate over the Pearce and Griffin nominations.
While the nomination of Pearce, a former Buffalo labor lawyer, to a full five-year term proved to be the least controversial of the three, he endured tough questioning from both Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., about whether the labor board had made it too easy for unions to organize. They said they were especially concerned that the board was sanctioning the formation of “micro-unions” that include as few as two employees.
“The NLRB should be a neutral arbitrator, an impartial and unbiased board protecting the rights of both employers and employee,” Scott said. “But instead, the board has become an activist board, from my perspective.”
Griffin contended that the board was merely enforcing the law as it was written in approving those unions.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said something larger was at play in all the Republican criticism.
Labor rights “have been under prolonged attack” for 30 years, Murray said.
Meanwhile, Griffin – a Buffalo native – was questioned about how and when Obama originally appointed him.
Obama appointed Griffin and Sharon Block, another labor lawyer, to the labor board on Jan. 4, 2012, while the Senate, though not in town, was technically in session. Nevertheless, Obama deemed them to be “recess appointments” that didn’t need to be approved by the Senate.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently disagreed, ruling that Griffin and Block were appointed illegally. While the Obama administration is appealing that decision to the Supreme Court, the lower-court ruling has thrown into question 910 decisions that the labor board has made since Griffin and Block joined it.
What’s more, their original appointment – and recent renomination – enraged Republicans.
“Not only has the president shown a lack of respect for the constitutional role of the separation of powers and the curb on the executive branch that Article One provides, but I believe these two individuals have as well” by continuing to serve, Alexander said.
Asked to defend his appointment, Griffin said the president had no choice but to make those recess appointments at the time.
“The board could not function; it was down to only two board members,” Griffin said.
“So in order for the board to function, it was necessary for the president to act.”
Despite that argument, Republicans are expected to unanimously oppose Griffin’s renomination in committee and perhaps try to kill it on the Senate floor as well.