By the time President Trump’s first nominee for Labor secretary withdrew from consideration, there was little doubt where he stood on the big issues facing the department.
In contrast, his replacement, Alexander Acosta, heads into his hearing Wednesday with far more experience in government, but comparatively opaque views on key matters he’ll face at the Department of Labor— including whether the agency will officially delay the fiduciary rule's implementation.
“I think the jury is out on who he is,” says former Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Lu is one of 20 former Labor Department officials who discussed Acosta. Nearly all of them said they expect him to bring a conservative approach more in line with Bush’s Labor chief Elaine Chao than her Obama-appointed successors. But none are certain what he’ll prioritize, or how he’ll navigate some thorny issues awaiting him.
If Acosta is confirmed, one of his most immediate decisions will be how to handle Obama-era regulations such as the DoL’s fiduciary rule that business groups have sued to stop.
“Most members of the employer community cannot wait for the Department of Labor to jettison everything that happened in the last eight years,” said Paul DeCamp, a management attorney who ran the agency’s Wage and Hour Division under Bush.
Acosta will get competing advice from fellow Republicans. Some will urge him to simply rescind Obama’s changes and go back to the existing rules set in 2004.
“Acosta, who is as traditional a conservative Republican as there is, will be caught in this back-and-forth between the populist Trump and the anti-regulatory, business-friendly Trump,” said former acting labor secretary Seth Harris, who served under Obama.
Whatever Acosta wants to do will be complicated by Trump’s proposal for massive budget cuts, including a $2.6 billion reduction at the department. "Being secretary of a department that is 21% less funded is a pretty significant change in his job description, and I would want to know what assurances he has about his ability to influence what that budget is going to look like," said Sharon Block, who served in the department under Obama.
Acosta was a management-side attorney and a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito before being tapped by Bush for the labor board.
Now the dean of Florida International University’s law school, Acosta served under President George W. Bush as a member of the National Labor Relations Board before moving to the Justice Department.