Thomas Perez, the Justice Department’s top civil rights enforcer and the White House’s pick to be labor secretary, never broke a sweat during his hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Thursday morning. He had little need to, as the questioning rarely got tough.
Perez is a controversial choice, but Republicans failed to generate any heat at the hearing. Democrats ably defended him. In the end, nothing happened to upset his chances of confirmation.
The nominee touted his background as the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic as well as the fact that he has worked under Republican and Democratic administrations. He said he was eager to get to work: “The mission of the Labor Department is the mission of America.”
The most offbeat moment was provided by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Senate’s lone (avowed) socialist. He pressed Perez on whether he would support adjusting how the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the official unemployment numbers. He argued that the number should include those who have stopped looking for work. Perez agreed the official numbers understate the jobless problem in the US.
The toughest questioning involved a quid pro quo deal Perez struck with the city of St. Paul, Minn., in 2011. The deal involved the Justice Department agreeing to drop out of two cases against the city in exchange for the city not pursuing a case that could have resulted in the legal theory of “disparate impact” coming before the Supreme Court. Perez, an advocate of the theory, which lowers the bar for proving discrimination, was afraid the justices would limit its use. (For more, see here.)
Several GOP senators raised it — as did Democrats, in an attempt to dismiss it pre-emptively. Sen. Tom Harkin, R-Iowa, and other Democrats made a point of saying that one of the cases the DOJ dropped out of went to court anyway and the plaintiff lost. This showed it was of little merit, they argued.
It’s not clear if the case would have failed if the DOJ had stayed on board though. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., argued the case, which involved a whistle-blower, would chill other potential whistle-blowers by showing they cannot depend on federal protection.
Perez defended the deal, saying the cases the DOJ dropped out of were weak. He also denied pressuring anyone on the federal government on the matter and that protecting the ability to use “disparate impact” theory was much more important anyway.
“Bad facts make bad law,” he told the committee regarding the St. Paul case, adding later: “It was in the best interests of the United States.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., agreed, arguing that it was “perfectly within realm of the Justice Department to ensure the Supreme Court has right case before it.”
The hearing wrapped up at noon, with the senators heading off for a vote. After thanking some of his supporters, Perez didn’t stick around to talk to reporters. He exited the hearing room through the senators’ entrance.