On April 27, 2017, the United States Senate confirmed the nomination of Rene Alexander “Alex” Acosta as the nation’s 27th U.S. Secretary of Labor by a bipartisan final vote of 60-38. Eight Democrats and one independent joined the Republicans voting in favor of Secretary Acosta. Earlier, the Senate voted 61-39 to advance his nomination to the floor, followed by up to 30 hours of debate.
Secretary Acosta’s nomination and Senate confirmation followed the forced withdrawal of President Trump’s initial nominee for labor secretary, franchise restaurant CEO Andrew Puzder, who was the object of blistering union and media attacks.
President Trump nominated Acosta immediately following Puzder’s withdrawal, and his nomination was narrowly voted out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on a straight party-line vote of 12–11.
Previous Senate Confirmations
This is not the first time Acosta has been confirmed by the Senate. During the administration of former president George W. Bush, he was confirmed from 2002–2009 to three presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed positions: first as a Member of the National Labor Relations Board, then as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, and finally as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. As U.S. Attorney, Acosta successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases, including the conviction of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff as well as the conviction of several leaders of the Columbian drug cartel.
While at the NLRB, Acosta participated in more than 125 decisions. He advocated the increased use of rulemaking—rather than administrative decision-making involving individual cases—in order to promote predictability, efficiency, and stability.
Since 2009, Acosta has been the Dean of Florida International University’s College of Law and has served as Chairman of the Board of U.S. Century Bank, where he turned around the struggling bank by securing capitalization that allowed the community service bank in South Florida to remain in business and independent.
Acosta received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University and served as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito when Justice Alito was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Challenges Awaiting Acosta at the DOL
Secretary Acosta will face an entrenched bureaucracy at the labor department that may resist his efforts to undo many of the regulations they helped draft over the past eight years, including ordering the withdrawal of pending court appeals seeking to preserve regulations such as the persuader rule and the overtime exemption “salary level” test for white collar employees. Among the sub-regulatory challenges will likely be restoring agency-binding, case-by-case “opinion letters” in place of administrative interpretations, which replaced opinion letters in the previous administration, and reversing the controversial administrative interpretation requiring nonunion employers to allow union agents to accompany Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors on walk-around inspections. First and foremost, Secretary Acosta must fill key staff positions that require Senate confirmation and deal with agency budget and staffing cuts.
Secretary Acosta takes over at the Department of Labor at a challenging time with shifts in the economy and the world of work. Based on his experience and track record, where he has encountered similar challenges, as well as his off-the-charts intelligence, Secretary Acosta will be up to the task.