The Corner

The Elaine Chao Legacy

I sat on a panel for the Capital Research Center’s labor conference yesterday, and the highlight of the day was a speech from Bush labor secretary Elaine Chao. As W. James Antle III (who moderated another of the conference’s panels) has detailed on NRO, Chao’s department was among the most successful modern America has ever seen: It ramped up enforcement of many laws, including ones labor unions didn’t like; modernized various regulations; and emphasized transparency in the way unions spend their members’ dues money. Meanwhile, the department’s budget fell from $11.7 billion to $11.6 billion over eight years. That’s without adjusting for inflation.

The big question: Can these changes stick in a Labor Department overseen by a Democratic administration? Chao sounded hopeful and afraid in equal measures. During her eight years heading the department, she said, she tried to not just change policies but “institutionalize” them — she took seriously the suggestions of career bureaucrats who’d still be around under future presidents; she tried to lock down or change important policies via executive order; she used her longevity at the department to pursue long-term goals (it can take three to five years to change OSHA regulations); she fought court battles whenever the need arose. She sounded confident that she’d left a lasting mark on the department.

However, she fully recognized that the Obama administration would leave its own mark, sometimes by undoing things she’d accomplished. “I have to pay the Obama administration a compliment: They’re very organized and very formidable,” she said. She pointed out that her department took until mid-February 2001 to secure its first executive order. Obama’s first labor-related executive orders — three of them — came before the end of January.

In her speech, in the subsequent question-and-answer session, and in a four-page handout, Chao provided a laundry list of changes Obama and his Labor Department could make (and have already made) to labor law. Card check is the big one, of course. But there’s also a new executive order that federal contractors can’t use government money to encourage workers not to join unions — since money is fungible, Chao argued, that could mean that federal contractors can’t communicate to workers about unions at all. Both houses of Congress have held hearings on expanding the benefits employers must provide under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Respect Act would change the definition of “supervisor” to include fewer workers (unions cannot organize supervisors). And so on.

Many of the conference’s panelists had interesting things to say as well. I’ll have another post this afternoon addressing some of them.

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