In an appropriations hearing last week, Democratic senator Tom Harkin of Iowa scolded Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for her department’s latest funding request. “I believe this budget does not reflect the right priorities,” sniffed Harkin. What he meant was that the Department of Labor isn’t demanding enough money from Congress.
From the perspective of Washington’s spending class, that’s probably true: Since the start of the Bush administration, the Department of Labor’s discretionary budget has shrunk from $11.7 billion in 2001 to $11.6 billion today. For 2009, Chao is asking for just $10.5 billion. It’s the smallest amount she has yet sought.
Next year at this time, the Department of Labor almost certainly will have a new secretary — and one whose tenure will fall under the long shadow of Chao’s achievement. As of today, Chao is the longest-serving labor secretary since the end of the Second World War. She will be remembered as both one of the most conservative as well as one of the most consequential.
In GOP administrations, the Department of Labor is often a half-forgotten stepchild — it’s viewed as a Department of Labor Unions that presents more headaches than opportunities. Gerald Ford’s labor secretary, John T. Dunlop, quit in a huff when the president vetoed a bill that would have expanded picketing rights for striking unionists. Among Republican labor secretaries since then, only Raymond Donovan, who served in President Reagan’s first term, has stuck around for more than about two years.
Chao, by contrast, has remained in her position since 2001. She’s the only member of President Bush’s original Cabinet who hasn’t moved on. Many of her successes have been preventative. Not only has she kept her budget in line, but she has also led efforts to defeat a series of bad ideas emanating from liberals in Congress, such as burdensome regulations involving ergonomics. She has effectively opposed the No. 1 item on Big Labor’s legislative wish list: card check, a.k.a. the Employee Free Choice Act, an Orwellian bill that would deny workers the right to a secret ballot when unions are trying to organize them.
Chao’s most significant achievement, however, may be proactive rather than defensive: Unions now must provide a far more detailed accounting of their money and activities. In last week’s hearing, Harkin called this “going after labor unions” for making them file “onerous new financial disclosure requirements for rank-and-file members.” In reality, Chao has empowered rank-and-file members by demanding that labor leaders comply with modern standards of transparency. They must report income, expenses, salaries, and so on. It’s all online in a searchable database, too. It means that in the future, union bosses will have a harder time keeping the lid on everything from their left-wing politicking to the bar tabs they rack up at their Las Vegas conventions.
Harkin and the Democrats seem eager to expand the Department of Labor’s budget in every area — except this one. If a Democrat is elected president this year, Chao’s successor may view dismantling these new rules as his first priority. The fight will be made difficult, however, by the fact that Chao has spent years putting the rules in place and refining their use.
It’s too bad that Chao can’t stay on the job and enjoy a tenure rivaling that of Frances Perkins, who served as FDR’s labor secretary for a dozen years. Whenever she steps down and looks back, however, she will have earned a real sense of accomplishment — and conservatives will owe her their thanks.