WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump’s pick to lead Labor Department tried to assure senators Thursday that his years of legal work for corporate clients would not influence his actions as a Cabinet member.
In opening remarks before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Eugene Scalia recalled his previous service as the department’s top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration. Then, as now, Scalia said he was coming to the department from the private sector where he advised and represented businesses on employment issues.
Once at the Labor Department, “I had new clients, new responsibilities, and a public trust,” said Scalia, whose father was the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I’m not necessarily my clients,” he said. “I will seek to defend them, to vindicate their rights but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily think what they did is proper.”
Scalia’s nomination is opposed by the AFL-CIO, which has described him as a union-busting lawyer who has eroded labor rights and consumer protections. The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said Scalia “is an elite corporate lawyer who has spent his career fighting for corporations and against workers.”
But the committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Scalia “has the skills to help continue to grow our economy and help workers gain the skills they need to succeed in today’s workplace.”
Murray said she had asked Alexander to delay the confirmation hearing, arguing that Republicans were rushing through Scalia’s nomination when more time was needed to examine the nominee’s long record on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. The committee is set to vote on Scalia’s nomination early next week.
“Moving from formal nomination to confirmation in less than two weeks, we have in this case, is deeply concerning,” she said.
Alexander said committee members have known about the nomination since July 18 when Trump tweeted Scalia was his pick for the job. Although the committee didn’t officially receive the nomination until Sept. 11, Alexander said Scalia’s required paperwork, which included his financial disclosure and ethics agreements, has been available for committee members to review since late August.
Business groups are squarely behind Scalia, viewing him as a reliable opponent of regulatory overreach and red tape. If Scalia is confirmed by the Senate, he’ll be the seventh former lobbyist to hold a Cabinet-level post in the Trump administration.
Scalia, 56, served for a year as the department’s top lawyer during the Bush administration. But most of his career has been spent as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher firm, where he has run up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests .
On his financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Scalia listed 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Ford, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Scalia largely avoided making commitments when asked by senators about particular regulations or programs. But he told Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., he would examine the number of inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and “take the steps that might be necessary to get the number of inspectors up to the appropriate level.”
Scalia said he would administer laws protecting LGBT employees against workplace discrimination because of their sexual orientation, but several Democrats pressed him how high a priority this was for him. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut raised an article Scalia wrote while in college in 1985 under the title, “Trivializing The Issues Behind Gay Rights.” Murphy said Scalia wrote that, “I do not think we should treat it as equally acceptable or desirable as the traditional family life” and concluded by saying he wasn’t sure where he stood on the basic issue of gay rights.
“My worry is that your views have not matured as the country’s have,” Murphy said. “Have your views changed since you wrote that article?”
Scalia said they had.
“I would not write those words today, in part because I have friends and colleagues to whom they would cause pain,” he said.
Murray asked Scalia if she would put the administration’s proposed overtime pay rule on hold and defend the Obama administration’s regulation in court. Scalia declined to make a commitment but pledged to keep an open mind.
The Obama overtime regulation was scheduled to take effect in 2016 but was put on hold by a federal lawsuit. A revised proposal issued by the Trump Labor Department in March raised the annual pay threshold at which workers would be exempt from overtime to $35,308 from the current $23,660, expanding overtime pay to roughly 1 million workers. The Obama plan set the threshold at more than $47,000 and would have affected an estimated 4.2 million people.
Trump’s previous labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, resigned in July after renewed criticism for his handling of a 2008 secret plea deal with financier Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was found dead last month in his cell at a federal jail in Manhattan after a July arrest on sex trafficking charges.
Deputy Labor Secretary Pat Pizzella has been serving as acting secretary.