When Elaine Chao leaves office at the start of the Obama administration, she will be the longest-serving secretary of labor since World War II and the last remaining member of President Bush’s original cabinet. And, unusual for someone in her position even under Republican administrations, she will have presided over more than her share of conservative domestic-policy accomplishments.
Union activists won’t exactly be singing “Thanks for the Memory.” A recent Washington Post story describes her as “defending her legacy amid criticism from labor groups and government watchdogs who say the department has backed off of its vital regulatory functions during the Bush years.” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney once said of Chao, “In all my years of meeting with secretaries of labor, I’ve never had one so anti-union.” After referring to Chao as the secretary of commerce, Sweeney said, “I mean the secretary of labor. She just sounded like the secretary of commerce.”
It would be unfortunate if retrospectives on Chao’s service echoed Sweeney’s line. While many Republicans talk about government doing more with less, her Labor Department actually delivered. Chao trimmed — that’s right, actually cut — her discretionary budget from $11.7 billion to $11.6 billion. She requested just $10.5 billion in 2008, which most congressional Democrats didn’t think was enough. Even if the totals are small in the context of a federal budget of more than $3 trillion, like ants floating in a sea of red ink, anytime the head of a government department reduces spending it is cause for celebration.