Secretary Elaine Chao

 
 
 

Productive Labor

In an appropriations hearing last week, Democratic senator Tom Harkin of Iowa scolded Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for her department’s latest funding request. “I believe this budget does not reflect the right priorities,” sniffed Harkin. What he meant was that the Department of Labor isn’t demanding enough money from Congress.

From the perspective of Washington’s spending class, that’s probably true: Since the start of the Bush administration, the Department of Labor’s discretionary budget has shrunk from $11.7 billion in 2001 to $11.6 billion today. For 2009, Chao is asking for just $10.5 billion. It’s the smallest amount she has yet sought.

Next year at this time, the Department of Labor almost certainly will have a new secretary — and one whose tenure will fall under the long shadow of Chao’s achievement. As of today, Chao is the longest-serving labor secretary since the end of the Second World War. She will be remembered as both one of the most conservative as well as one of the most consequential.

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