Republicans grilled President Barack Obama’s labor secretary nominee Tom Perez during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Republicans challenged the nominee over his record as head of civil rights enforcement at the Department of Justice. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, questioned Perez’s commitment to “protecting the rights of whistleblowers.”
“Allegations have been made that Mr. Perez intervened in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice and urged them to drop support of a whistleblower case that could have returned $200 million to the taxpayers,” Alexander said.
According to a report released by the House Oversight Committee on Sunday, Perez dropped the lucrative whistleblower case after the city of St. Paul, Minn., withdrew a Supreme Court appeal that threatened to undermine a legal precedent that makes it easier to file racial discrimination suits. Perez claims St. Paul approached the department first about tying the cases together and the department acted ethically in the exchange.
“Bad facts make bad laws,” Perez said. “My understanding … is that (the whistleblower suit) was a weak case and a weak candidate for intervention.”
Alexander objected to Perez getting involved in the two cases that were not “your business.”
“That seems to me an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside the responsibility of the assistant attorney general for civil rights,” Alexander said. “You have a duty to protect the taxpayer money, to protect the whistleblower … you’re manipulating the legal process in a way that is inappropriate.”
“The decision made in this case was in the best interest of the U.S.,” Perez responded. “This decision was not made by Tom Perez, it was made by seasoned career [department attorneys].”
Committee members also took the nominee to task for his role in the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case. The Department of Justice dropped the charges against two Panthers who brandished weapons outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. An inspector general report released in March revealed Perez interpreted voting rights laws to not apply to white citizens.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who is black, asked Perez whether he created a “politically charged” environment at the Department of Justice.
“Your management style seems not to be open, not to be fair, not to be balanced, to have a political bias,” Scott said.
“I have always been open and fair,” Perez said. “I have always adopted a management style … that applies facts to the law.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) also criticized a brief written by Perez’s division that would have prevented churches from firing ministers who openly disagreed with a church’s religious doctrine.
“Had your argument won the day, the federal government would be able to interfere in the selection of ministers. The Supreme Court not only unanimously rejected your position, it called it untenable,” Hatch said. “Why did you take such an extreme position?”
Perez dodged the question, saying, “The government acknowledged that hiring exemptions … have been enjoyed for decades.”
“[Our brief] didn’t seek hostility to religious organizations,” he said. “We will respect [the Supreme Court].”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) introduced the nominee on Thursday, defending his record at the Department of Justice and as labor secretary for the state of Maryland.
“We know his commitment to fairness,” he said. “We all know the civil rights division had major problems … he has an incredible record of restoring integrity to civil rights division.”
Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) also commended Perez for his “vision” for the office and his integrity, adding, “Any allegations to the contrary are unfounded.”
Democrats also touted his background as the child of Dominican immigrants during the introduction.
“He knows what the American dream is, and he knows what hard work is and he knows that we need a ladder of opportunity,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.). “His story is the story of America.”
Several GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) have said they are opposed to the nomination.
Labor watchdogs said the GOP is applying an appropriate level of scrutiny to Perez’s record, as the department will oversee several important aspects of President Obama’s second term agenda, including minimum wage laws and union regulations.
“Thomas Perez stands to inherit a Department of Labor that is far too cozy with the labor unions it’s supposed to regulate,” said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts. “The Senate needs to gauge whether Perez intends to continue this partisan activism or whether he will represent the interests of employees.”
Perez said he is committed to “jobs, jobs, and jobs” adding that government should help drive recovery through wage laws, worker training, and regulation of businesses.
“Business will always be the prime generator of good jobs,” he said. “At the same time, government can be a force multiplier … job safety and job creation are not mutually exclusive.”
The committee will meet again next Thursday to discuss the nomination.