When Elaine Chao leaves office at the start of the Obama administration, she will be the longest-serving secretary of labor since World War II and the last remaining member of President Bush’s original cabinet. And, unusual for someone in her position even under Republican administrations, she will have presided over more than her share of conservative domestic-policy accomplishments.
Union activists won’t exactly be singing “Thanks for the Memory.” A recent Washington Post story describes her as “defending her legacy amid criticism from labor groups and government watchdogs who say the department has backed off of its vital regulatory functions during the Bush years.” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney once said of Chao, “In all my years of meeting with secretaries of labor, I’ve never had one so anti-union.” After referring to Chao as the secretary of commerce, Sweeney said, “I mean the secretary of labor. She just sounded like the secretary of commerce.”
It would be unfortunate if retrospectives on Chao’s service echoed Sweeney’s line. While many Republicans talk about government doing more with less, her Labor Department actually delivered. Chao trimmed — that’s right, actually cut — her discretionary budget from $11.7 billion to $11.6 billion. She requested just $10.5 billion in 2008, which most congressional Democrats didn’t think was enough. Even if the totals are small in the context of a federal budget of more than $3 trillion, like ants floating in a sea of red ink, anytime the head of a government department reduces spending it is cause for celebration.
Under Chao, the Labor Department was the first — indeed, the only — cabinet-level agency to receive a “green” rating from the White House for sound-management practices in every required area. The Chao team met its Office of Management and Budget spending targets each year, bucking the trend toward big-government conservatism and instead practicing the old-fashioned kind.
So did Chao simply gut the Labor Department from within, as her critics claim? The facts suggest otherwise. Since 2001, the department’s Wage and Hour Division has recovered record back wages for U.S. workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that injury and illness rates were down 13 percent as of 2007. Money recovered for victims of illegal employment discrimination was up 80 percent over the same period, and topped $67 million (on behalf of more than 19,000 workers) in fiscal year 2008. The department’s efforts to moniter compliance with health and safety plans have yielded $9.2 billion and 691 criminal indictments.
Under Chao, the agency modernized overtime regulations for workers that hadn’t been updated since the late 1940s. Workers saw their protections strengthened, while businesses saw an end to the costly increased litigation that previous uncertainty had been causing.
As Chao once told me in an interview, “by every key measure — workplace safety and health, back wages recovered, and retirement assets protected — the department has achieved record results.” All while spending and regulating less.
Of course, the Post reports, “many labor advocates say the results could be even better if the agency had taken a tougher approach toward employers.” Chao assumed that most employers act in good faith and want to follow the law, so her team emphasized outreach and education programs.
But “labor advocates” did not always feel the Bush Labor Department had too light a regulatory touch: They bristled when Chao actually enforced the union-transparency requirements that had been in effect since the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. Chao advocated revised LM-2 and T-1 reporting forms, requiring that the biggest and richest unions itemize all spending above $5,000 rather than lump vast sums of money together under meaningless categories like “grants.” The Labor Department published the results online at a website that receives nearly 2,000 visits a month, leaving rank-and-file union members just a mouse click away from knowing how their dues are spent. Staffing at the Office of Labor Management went up along with the audits of large unions. In 1998 and 1999, under the previous administration, such audits had declined to exactly zero.
Such reforms are “anti-union” only if preventing corrupt union officials from misspending their organizations’ and their workers’ hard-earned money can be so described — an odd way of looking at things, especially for people who generally reject the idea that government red tape like that mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley can ever be “anti-business.”
While the unions are anticipating a hefty political windfall under a Democratic administration, more than a few workers and taxpayers will be sorry to see Elaine Chao go.
– W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.