Pruitt in, Puzder out, Acosta waiting in the wings

President Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was confirmed today by a Senate vote of 52-46. The former attorney general of Oklahoma has been hostile to new EPA safeguards for air and water, most notably by suing the EPA 14 times over his career. The Senate’s approval of Pruitt has environmental and public health advocates wondering what the future will be for environmental protection.

Maine Senator Susan Collins was the only Republican senator to oppose Pruitt’s nomination:

“His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the Agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment.”

Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) voted to approve Pruitt as the EPA Administrator.

Following the vote, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Elizabeth Thompson remarked:

“Scott Pruitt, with his record of siding with major polluters and against the public health, stands far outside that mainstream bipartisan tradition. That is why Mr. Pruitt is the first Environmental Protection Agency Administrator whose nomination EDF has ever opposed.”

I’ll be looking to EDF, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Earth Justice and other groups to keep me informed about Pruitt’s first key decisions at the EPA. This especially means to me his approach to the newly amended Toxic Substances Control Act and opportunities to address workers’ exposure to chemicals. His decisions under the law could lay the foundation for how it will be implemented decades into the future.

Andrew Puzder, on the other hand, will not have the same sort of opportunity. Puzder was nominated on December 8 by President Trump for Secretary of Labor, but he withdrew this week from the nomination process. The fast-food executive—CEO of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.—was not expected to have the votes needed in the Senate to be confirmed.

Several Republican Senators, including Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Tim Scott (R-SC), expressed concerns about Puzder’s appropriateness for the job. Among other problems, he admitted to employing an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper and failing to pay the required employment taxes; employees at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants were victims of wage theft and other labor violations; and he belittled fast-food workers with statements such as this one: “At Hardee’s we were getting the worst of the worst. Nobody wanted to work at Hardee’s.”

President Trump’s second pick for Labor Secretary is R. Alexander Acosta. The 48-year old Florida native is dean of the College of Law at Florida International University. He served in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice beginning in 2003 where he was responsible for enforcing federal civil rights statutes, including those statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and religion in employment, housing, and voting. He later served until 2009 as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO told the New York Times:

“Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration. In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food chain C.E.O. who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it.”

Other labor organizations also had a favorable response to Acosta’s nomination. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) said in a statement:

“The IAFF had an opportunity to work with Alexander Acosta on a number of issues when he served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President George W. Bush and we always found him to be fair, reasonable and accessible. His long and distinguished career in law and government service make him a strong candidate to serve as our country’s next Labor Secretary. [We] will voice our support to members of the Senate HELP Committee and, ultimately, to the full Senate.”

Douglas McCarron, President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBS) issued a statement that noted:

“Mr. Acosta is an advocate for the middle class. His experience will serve the members of the UBC well. We look forward to working with him as Secretary of Labor to continue to build the skilled American workforce.”

In a statement I received from the International Union of Operating Engineers, the union’s general president James Callahan said:

“We are pleased that the President has chosen to nominate Alexander Acosta to lead the Department of Labor.  In his prior posts, Mr. Acosta has a proven himself to be a dedicated public servant known to be fair and open minded. Mr. Acosta has proven that he can handle disparate opinions and information in order to make thoughtful decisions on difficult issues.  These qualities are essential to lead an agency that is tasked with such things as protecting workers from wage theft to enforcing standards that keep them safe on the job.”

The next few weeks will be quite interesting as we learn more about Mr. Acosta and consider is approach to enforcing worker safety and health protections.