Beyond Tom Perez: Why do we need a Labor Department?

Well, America survived.

Yes, it’s true, the United States was able to withstand two months without a labor secretary. The previous secretary, Hilda Solis, stepped down on Jan. 22. That thud you heard was no one noticing. No one noticed because, like most of the federal government, the Department of Labor has become an enormous bureaucracy machine with a life of its own that functions in spite of — and in the absence of — any individual secretary.

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama has anointed her successor, one Thomas Perez, formerly head of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, and presently chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

For liberals like the president, Mr. Perez’s personal story seems as much a qualification for his new job as any post he may have filled in state or federal government heretofore. In a speech announcing the nomination, Mr. Obama intoned:

“Tom … [is] the son of Dominican immigrants. He helped pay his way through college as a garbage collector and working at a warehouse. He went on to become the first lawyer in his family.”

Some Republicans, on the other hand, have reacted to the news with accusations and speculations regarding Mr. Perez’s alleged improprieties as a public official. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blasted the choice by casting aspersions on Mr. Perez’s association with a Maryland immigrant advocacy group: “Mr. Perez previously served as the president of the board of CASA de Maryland, a fringe advocacy group that has instructed illegal immigrants on how to escape detection, and also promoted illegal labor sites and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.”

The discussion over Mr. Perez’s fitness to head the Labor Department will generate sufficient wind in D.C. to power one of Al Gore’s funny cars for a little while, but not much else. As usual, what should really be discussed has been scarcely mentioned in the Beltway echo chamber. To wit: Do we even need a secretary of labor — or, for that matter, a Labor Department?

To answer that question, we must first ascertain what the function of such a functionary is supposed to be. According to the Labor Department’s website, the agency’s mission, which the secretary is presumably charged with executing, is: “To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Sounds like a tall order. One would think that the best way to “advance opportunities for profitable employment” is to grow the economy. And what contribution has the Labor Department made toward that goal?

The Department of Labor was established in 1913 and was the culmination of a half-century-long fight by organized labor to gain a seat in the president’s cabinet. In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR and his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins used the department to tinker with the economy in ways that restricted the ability of businesses to adjust their prices, salaries and output to meet demand. The result was that an already stifled economy became positively constricted, thanks at large part to the Department of Labor.

And so it is today. If one looks at the Department of Labor website at, which lists all five titles (Titles 20, 29, 30, 41 and 48) of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which pertain to the DOL, one can embark on a dizzying Inner Space-like voyage through link after link through all of the 2,700 “parts”, subdivided into chapters and subparts, consisting of God knows how many actual pages of the red tape that binds our poor business community into submission (no safe word provided, unfortunately).

For example, once a business employs 15 workers, it must comply with Americans with Disabilities Act rules; at 20 employees it must provide 18 months of health coverage upon termination; at 50 employees it must comply with Family Medical Leave Act rules, and on and on.

Perhaps the DOL mission statement should be rewritten to reflect reality. If so, it may read:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of bureaucrats, rent seekers, and busybodies of the United States; improve unworkable conditions; depress opportunities for any employment; and assure paper-pusher benefits and comfort.”

Now that sounds like a mission they can accomplish.