Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor speech on opposing Thomas Perez for Secretary of Labor

Posted on July 18, 2013

Later today we will vote in the Senate on the question concerning whether the president's nomination of Thomas Perez to be the secretary of labor should be confirmed.  I will vote no.  I will vote against the confirmation of Mr. Perez.  I do not believe he is the right man for this job.

The secretary of labor has immense influence over the lives of workers and the conduct of business in today's economy.  Employees, employers, and unions must be able to trust the secretary to faithfully and impartially execute our nation's labor laws. 

At a time when the official unemployment rate stands at 7.6 percent -- meaning millions of Americans are looking for work and can't find it -- and at a time when there is a growing gap between our workers' skills and our employers' needs, we need serious leadership on labor policy.  We need someone who understands how to create an environment in which the largest number of Americans can find good new jobs.  We need leadership that is committed to working in the best interests of the country.  Unfortunately, I don't believe Mr. Perez meets that standard.

Mr. Perez's life story is one with many worthy accomplishments in public service, a devotion to representing disadvantaged individuals, and I commend him for that.  But he has demonstrated throughout his career that he is willing to, in his words, push the envelope to advance his ideology.

I believe there are three significant problems with the nomination of Mr. Perez:

No. 1, in my view, his record raises troubling questions about his actions while at the Department of Justice and his candor in discussing his actions with this committee. 

The Department of Justice inspector general recently published a detailed report that discussed problems in the voting rights section.  It talked about a politically charged atmosphere of polarization.  Mr. Perez has administered that section since 2009.  The report talked about the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and confidential information and about blatantly partisan political commentary.  It specifically criticized the management of the Department and Mr. Perez's actions while at the Department.  When questioned by members of our Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Mr. Perez's answers were vague and nonresponsive.

No. 2, to preserve a favorite legal theory, Mr. Perez orchestrated a quid pro quo arrangement between the Department of Justice and the City of St. Paul in which the department agreed to drop two cases in exchange for the city withdrawing a case, the Manger case, before the Supreme Court.  Mr. Perez's involvement in this whole deal seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside what should be the normal responsibilities of the assistant attorney general for civil rights.  To obtain his desired results, Mr. Perez reached outside of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice into the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office and into the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  This exchange cost American taxpayers the opportunity to potentially recover millions of dollars and, more importantly, violated the trust whistleblowers place in the federal government.  His testimony has been contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses in contemporaneous documents. 

In short, it seems to me that Mr. Perez did not discharge the duty he owed to the government to try to collect money owed to taxpayers.  He did not discharge the duty to protect the whistleblowers, who were left hanging in the wind.  At the same time, he was manipulating the legal process to remove a case from the Supreme Court in a way that is inappropriate for the assistant attorney general of the United States. 

No. 3, Mr. Perez's use of private e-mail accounts to leak nonpublic information is troubling to me.

Federal officials in this administration seem to have a penchant for using private e-mails to conduct official business.  The Federal Records Act is designed to ensure that the government is held accountable to the American people to prevent the opportunity for a shadow government to operate outside of the normal channels of oversight.  Using personal e-mails robs the nation of the ability to know if the government is behaving appropriately.

Since Mr. Perez apparently is going to be confirmed despite my vote, I hope he will pledge to stop using personal e-mails to conduct official business.

For these three reasons, I cannot support the Perez confirmation.  I will support and have supported the President's right to have an up-or-down vote on his Cabinet members.  I always have.  So I voted for cloture. 

But what we have seen over the last several weeks -- and I believe the reason the Senate did not come to a screeching halt this week -- is that there is a widespread misunderstanding about what Senate Republicans have done with respect to President Obama's nominees for his Cabinet.  The reality is that Republicans have respected the right of the president to staff his Cabinet.  In fact, never in our Nation's history has the Senate blocked a Cabinet official from confirmation by a filibuster.  Let me say that again.  The number of presidential nominees for Cabinet in our nation's history who have been denied his or her seat by a filibuster, by a failed cloture vote, is zero. 

The Washington Post and the Congressional Research Service have said that President Obama's Cabinet appointees in his second term are moving through the Senate at about the same rate as President George W. Bush's and President Clinton's.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have a long history of using the constitutional authority for advice and consent to ask questions.  We have done that in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions concerning Mr. Perez for the last 122 days. We have a historical right -- and we have exercised it in a bipartisan way -- to use our right to ask for 60 votes in order to advance our views.  That is a part of the character of the Senate.  But it is important to know that these fairy tales that have been suggested about Republicans somehow blocking President Obama's nominees are just that.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record at the end of my remarks an op-ed I wrote for the Washington Times yesterday supporting my remarks. The op-ed points out that most of this week's nuclear option debate about whether senators should be permitted to filibuster presidential nominees was not about filibusters, it was instead about whether a majority of senators should be able to change the rules of the Senate at any time for any purpose. 

Former Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan once offered the precise trouble with this idea.  He said:

“If a majority of the Senate can change the rules at any time, the Senate has no rules.”

In other words, all of this fuss was a power grab.

In fact, most of the filibustering that has been done to deny presidents confirmation of their nominees has been done by our friends on the other side.  As I mentioned earlier, the number of Cabinet members who have been denied their seats by a filibuster is zero.  The number of district judges in the history of the country who have been denied their seats by a filibuster is zero. The number of Supreme Court Justices who have been denied their seats by a filibuster is zero.  There was the incident in 1968 when President Johnson engineered an opportunity for Abe Fortas to get a 45-to-43 vote so he could feel better about staying on the Court after a majority of the Senate clearly wasn't going to confirm him for the Supreme Court. But throughout our history, the right to advise and consent has been exercised by a majority vote even in the most controversial cases.  The vote on Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court was a majority vote.  The vote denying Robert Bork an opportunity to go to the Supreme Court was a majority vote.  While there never has been a Supreme Court nominee blocked by a filibuster, about a quarter of all of the Supreme Court nominees have been withdrawn or blocked by majority vote.

So elections have consequences, and I respect that whether it is a Republican or a Democratic President.  Our tradition was that nominees were not denied their seat by a failed cloture vote. Other than Fortas, the only exception is that in 2003, about the time I came to the Senate, the Democrats, for the first time in history -- the first time in history -- filibustered 10 of President George W. Bush's nominees.  That produced Republicans who wanted to change the rules of the Senate, and fortunately cooler heads prevailed.  But five Republican judges -- very meritorious people, such as Miguel Estrada; a real tragedy -- were denied their seats by a filibuster.

So the usual and expected happened.  Republicans have since denied two Democratic seats by a filibuster.

So my preference is much that presidents have the opportunity to appoint their Cabinet members, to appoint their Supreme Court Justices, and if we don't like them, we can vote against them.  There have been occasions where sub-Cabinet members have been denied their seats.  The total number is seven, all since 1994, and there may be more again. 

A simple objection by Republicans to the motion of the majority leader to cut off debate may simply mean we want more information.  In the case of Senator Hagel, the majority leader sought to cut off debate two days after his nomination came to the floor, and we voted no.  We were not ready to cut off debate.  Then, 10 days later, we voted to confirm Senator Hagel.  

I am glad that this week the Senate regained its equilibrium, so to speak, and stopped this talk

of creating the Senate as a body where a majority of the Senate can change the rules at any time, which would make this a Senate without any rules. 

I hope we do not hear any more about it because that is not appropriate.  It is not appropriate in this body.  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Senator Reid himself, and others have said that this body is different.  It is a place where you have to come to a consensus.  We are coming to one, for example, on student loans today.  The president made a good recommendation to solve the student loan problem on a permanent basis.  The House of Representatives passed something much like the president's, and hopefully we can do that later today. 

So I believe the president deserves an up-or-down vote on his nomination for the secretary of labor and his nominee for any other Cabinet member.  But in this case, for the reasons I stated, I am voting no on confirmation.

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