So far, Senate Republicans have mostly been united in their support for President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul did vote against confirming Mike Pompeo as CIA director on civil libertarian grounds, while two Republicans—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine—declined to support Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. But otherwise, the GOP has been marching in lockstep, and it’s easy to understand why. No matter how many doubts they might harbor about President Trump, the fates of Republicans in the Senate are tied to his, and it’s hard to see how bruising confirmation battles that throw the Trump White House in even more disarray would do anyone in the party any good. Then there is the element of fear. What if Trump decides to rail against Republican senators who refuse to get with the program? The president and his allies might even back a primary challenger to oppose recalcitrant Republicans when they’re up for re-election.
If a GOP senator is going to oppose one of Trump’s nominees then, he or she needs to choose a target carefully. Choose someone who will send a clear message not only to Trump but to voters nationwide. Show that you’re not a pushover and that you take your ideological principles seriously. In other words, don’t knock someone off for the sake of knocking someone off. Vote against a nominee to force the president to correct his course and to stay true to the people vs. the powerful theme that won him the GOP nomination and the presidency. Vote against Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor.
Since the president first named Puzder as his choice to lead the Department of Labor, the libertarian-minded fast food CEO has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from the left and the right, as well as scrutiny over past domestic abuse allegations. (Puzder’s ex-wife has recently recanted those allegations.) Restrictionist conservatives have been particularly exercised by his longstanding support for legislation that would grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants and sharply increase future immigration levels. Considering that Trump campaigned almost entirely on his commitment to reducing immigration levels, his decision to nominate Puzder was nothing short of bizarre.
Though the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice get most of the attention, the Department of Labor plays a central role in enforcing U.S. immigration laws. Among other things, it is charged with overseeing various guest worker programs. Depending on who is at the helm, it can also coordinate its efforts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help ensure that employers are abiding by federal immigration laws. Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist think tank, described Puzder as “perhaps the worst person imaginable in that role.”
Among restrictionists, there are lingering doubts about President Trump’s commitment to their cause. While demonizing unauthorized immigrants is easy, taking on employers who violate immigration laws by hiring them is much harder. After all, unauthorized immigrants don’t vote or make campaign contributions. Unscrupulous low-wage employers do both, and they’ve done an extremely effective job of pushing back against immigration enforcement efforts in the past. It’s all too easy to imagine Trump pushing symbolic measures—building a wall, imposing a visa freeze on seven Muslim-majority countries that gets jammed up in the courts because it was so shambolically implemented—while letting the employers of unauthorized immigrants get off scot-free. By nominating Puzder, Trump has chosen someone who has evinced little interest in holding employers accountable for anything, least of all immigration laws. The fact that Puzder employed an unauthorized worker in his own home for several years is not encouraging news on that front. Although he has claimed recently that he will “fiercely defend American workers,” those words ring hollow given Puzder’s past actions.*
Leaving immigration aside, if Trump wants to make the Republican Party the party of blue-collar workers, Puzder is hardly the ideal poster boy. As Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post has documented, it seems that CKE Restaurants—the parent company of Hardee’s—failed to lift a finger to punish franchisees that stole from their workers during Puzder’s tenure as CEO. Puzder has also been an influential critic of minimum-wage hikes and overtime regulations, warning that such measures would force employers to replace low-wage workers with machines. He seems animated by the Luddite conviction that productivity-boosting automation is necessarily a bad thing, despite the fact that rising productivity levels are essential to wage growth.
By voting against Puzder, Republicans in the Senate would be doing themselves a favor. They’d be taking a stand in favor of workers, which might win them new admirers. They’d also give the Trump administration an opportunity to look at the Labor Department through fresh eyes. In a sobering survey of the U.S. labor market, economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz observed that over the past decade, 94 percent of net job growth came in the form of temporary help agency workers, contract workers, on-call workers, and independent contractors and freelancers. Though this has been good news for those who want greater flexibility, it’s been an enormously difficult time for people seeking stable, 9-to-5 employment. Labor force participation among prime-age men has remained depressed despite recent employment gains, especially among those with high school diplomas or less. Clearly we need a new approach.
Instead of appointing a labor secretary who evidently believes that wages for U.S. workers are much too high, Trump would do well to appoint someone who favors working with law-abiding employers to improve labor conditions and embrace productivity-boosting innovation, which in turn would make robust wage growth possible. A non-Puzder labor secretary might spearhead efforts to increase employment opportunities for the disabled and people living in poverty-stricken regions like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, in keeping with Trump’s “buy American, hire American” agenda. More ambitiously still, that secretary might even champion new models for organizing workers that could revitalize America’s labor movement. Under the right leadership, the Labor Department could be the vehicle through which Trump demonstrates that his endless promises to fight for American workers were more than just hot air.
Puzder will almost certainly face unified Democratic opposition; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already called on Trump to withdraw Puzder’s nomination. That means Puzder will be toast if he loses as few as three Republican votes. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to be pushing hard to save Trump’s nominee, several Republicans look like they could be persuaded to vote him down. That would be the right call. For Republicans in the Senate, voting against Puzder shouldn’t be viewed as a vote against Trump. It would be a vote for a better, smarter, and more forward-looking version of Trumpism, one that could expand the GOP coalition rather than shrink it.
*Update, Feb. 10: This piece has been updated to clarify Andy Puzder’s claim that he will “fiercely defend American workers.” (Return.)