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Ms. Smith Goes To Washington

February 1, 2010 - by Eric Naing

After nearly ten months of waiting, the Senate this evening will finally vote to advance the nomination of Patricia Smith as solicitor of the Department of Labor – the top lawyer at the department.

Smith was nominated to the position in April of last year, but since then has joined a number of Obama appointees that have been nominated but can not start working because the Senate has not confirmed them. Other notable members of this club include Dawn Johnsen, nominated to head the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council, and Martha Johnson, nominated to be administrator of the General Services Administration.

Smith’s nomination process has been highly contentious because it strikes at a key fault line in politics: business versus labor.

The DOL’s solicitor is basically in charge of enforcing workplace laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). As New York’s state labor commissioner, Smith has years of experience in the field. The New York Times reports that she has “a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost labor commissioners because of her vigorous efforts to crack down on minimum wage and overtime violations.”

Smith’s record has earned her the backing of labor and immigration groups but it has also earned her the ire of the business community.

Leading the charge against Smith is Sen. Mike Enzi [R, WY]. Part of the delay in the nomination process stemmed from a hold Sen. Enzi placed on Smith last October – ostensibly about whether or not she or a subordinate first had the idea for a program used to monitor wage violations in New York.

But as Thomas Frank asks in the Wall Street Journal, could there be another reason?

What is it about Ms. Smith that makes her unfit to follow such august public servants? Is it the dread possibility of a Labor Department that works?

I suspect his reason for going after Ms. Smith, who is currently the New York State labor commissioner, is because she is an effective and innovative labor bureaucrat.

Smith will need 60 votes tonight in order to survive. But even if she makes it, dozens of other Obama nominees will still be stuck in limbo.

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