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David Weil’s Defeat on the Senate Floor Is an Outrage

What’s the point of a Democratic Party if it isn’t going to protect the interests of working people?

U.S. Senate
David Weil at a Senate hearing in 2013

The Democratic Party’s indifference to the plight of working people is matched only by that of the mainstream press. As I write this on Wednesday morning, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have yet to report that the Democratic Senate voted not to advance the nomination of David Weil to be administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. As Politico’s Marianne Levine noted on Twitter, Weil’s is the first Biden nomination to fail on the Senate floor. It’s telling that the first nominee to go down was an advocate for the rights of working people.

As I’ve written before (here, here, and here), Weil was opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the International Franchise Association, Heritage Action for America, the National Taxpayers Union, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and various others because when he ran the Wage and Hour Division under President Barack Obama, he tried to revive the pitiful enforcement of labor laws on the books since the 1930s. Businesses had gotten used to these laws going largely unenforced, and they didn’t cotton to Weil reversing their de facto repeal of New Deal protections on overtime pay, minimum wage, Social Security, and other matters.

The Biden administration until this week thought it had the full Democratic caucus on board to confirm Weil. But Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Mark Kelly, also of Arizona, decided, apparently pretty late in the game, to buckle under pressure from the business lobby. Manchin explained his vote by saying, “Mr. Weil’s track record and previous statements are problematic for many West Virginia employees and business owners,” reports Levine. The reference to “employees” is window dressing. “I heard from a lot of business owners,” Kelly told Politico, “and being somebody who started a business myself it’s hard. There were concerns about how he’d interpret things and he had served in the position before.”

This is Kelly’s debut as a member of the Senate Democrats’ Unreliability Caucus, and it’s an ominous one. Arizona is not a labor-friendly state, and in January the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thanked Kelly for joining Manchin and Sinema in declining to sign onto the House-passed Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the single most necessary piece of legislation to reverse the shocking 40-plus-year runup in income inequality. It’s likely that, in the Senate’s current partisan configuration, Kelly, Sinema, and Manchin will bar passage of any pro-labor legislation.

We’ve been here before. The Democrats were founded in the nineteenth century as the party of working people. They collected a lot of other bad baggage along the way, supporting slavery and Jim Crow, but when they finally rid themselves of these in the 1960s, they had the potential to become a permanent majority party. It didn’t happen, largely because much of the white working class couldn’t accept racial equality. But it’s also true that the Democrats, going back to the 1950s, did little to unify the working class with policies promoting their interests. Until that happens, it will be hard to explain what point there is in even being a Democratic Party.