Hilda the hostage



Whatever happened to Hilda Solis? Maybe she has been bound and gagged and carted away by whoever Jack Bauer has been fighting these days over on Fox.

For awhile, earlier today, a sliver of light appeared; there were reports that she would be cut loose by her Republican accosters and allowed to proceed toward her new job as President Obama's Secretary of Labor. After nearly a month in limbo, procedural obstacles were going to be removed. Solis would thereby be permitted to win approval in a Senate committee this afternoon, with subsequent ratification on the Senate floor.

But it was not to be; the committee postponed its vote. Apparently her husband just paid $6400 in back taxes on his auto repair business (Holis is not a partner in that business), and the White House wants to vet the matter. And that's fine with the Republicans, because they've had a "hold" on Holis for weeks. Exercising the oversight function that had so eluded them during the Bush era, they've claimed to have pressing concerns about the nominee.

You may not be familiar with the Solis saga; she has been overshadowed in the news cycles by all the attention paid to the tax woes of Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle. But Solis surely rates a look, because the resistance to her nomination is symptomatic of the heightened tensions between business and labor that will play out in public during the Obama era.

Republican senators have balked at Solis' nomination ostensibly because she supposedly had run afoul of some ethics rules. As a strongly pro-labor Democratic congresswoman from California, Solis has also been a ceremonial officer of a pro-labor interest, American Rights at Work (ARW). Solis, as a congresswoman, has co-sponsored a high-profile bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize; ARW has lobbied lawmakers in support of this bill. Ergo, Republicans claim that Solis has violated House ethics rules that prohibit members of Congress from lobbying.

Moreover, they cite the fact that Solis was listed as ARW's treasurer. Treasurers, as part of the job, handle money. ARW has spent money to lobby Congress ($230,000 over the past two years). Ergo, since Solis must have handled the lobbying money, that definitely makes her a lobbyist and therefore in violation of House rules.

The problems with the GOP argument, however, are that (a) Solis' ARW titles were ceremonial, (b) Solis was unpaid, and (c) the ARW bylaws stipulate that only the executive director handles the lobbying money. But little details like this haven't deterred the Republicans, nor has it doused the passions of the conservative commentators who this week have been excitedly suggesting that Hilda Solis could be, in the words of the Heritage Foundation think tank, "the next Tom Daschle."

Solis, it must be said, has not been the perfect nominee. At her confirmation hearing in early January, she was unnecessarily coy while under questioning. When asked her opinion of that bill making it easier for workers to organize, she replied: "My position as a nominee for President-elect Obama to serve as secretary of labor doesn't, in my opinion, afford me the ability to provide you with an opinion at this time." Presumably she was under orders to say nothing, but that was downright bizarre, given the fact that she had co-sponsored the House bill in 2007, and that Obama had voted (in vain) to bring it up on the Senate floor.

Also, Solis gave the GOP an extra chuckle by failing for three years to list her ceremonial ARW affiliation on House disclosure forms; finally, one week ago, she filed an amended disclosure form to square the matter. (The White House now characterizes her earlier omission as an "unintentional oversight." What is it with these Democratic nominees, anyway? Why do they seem to have a problem with timely paperwork?) In the scheme of things, the filing incident is no smoking gun, but it has given the Republicans an excuse to imply that she had something to hide.

The bottom line, however, is that the Republicans simply don't like her staunchly pro-labor policy priorities. During the Bush era, they pretty much neutered the Labor Department (no surprise there), to the point where longtime employes celebrated the departure of Bush's Labor secretary by holding a series of "good riddance" parties. The Bush era was marked by the worst job growth in 60 years, wage stagnation among working stiffs, and widening income inequality between rich and poor. Obama wants to improve those metrics, and Solis wants the Labor Department to be more responsive to the working stiffs.  

But since those are not Republican priorities, it's easy to recognize what's really going on with the Solis nomination. Republicans and their business allies have been using her to fire a warning shot at Obama. It's a proxy fight, a prelude to the main event.

By all accounts, Solis still appears headed for confirmation, albeit at snail's pace, because in the end her infraction is that she served on a group that thinks as she does; and because policy disagreements are not traditionally deemed to be sufficient grounds for rejecting a Cabinet nominee. But those disagreements will be furiously aired when the Obama team and the Democratic leadership decide to move on the aforementioned labor bill - officially called the Employe Free Choice Act - which would make it easier for workers to unionize. It would require, in some cases, that employers recognize a union if a majority of the workers sign cards indicating that they want to organize; critics say that such a rule would violate the sanctity of the secret ballot.

I'll forego an analysis of that proposal, for now. Suffice it to say that the slow-walking of Solis' nomination foreshadows the fireworks still to come. There will be nothing "post-partisan" about that standoff. Indeed, it will be a big test of Obama's commitment to the labor agenda, and if he blinks, Solis might wish that she had stayed in the House.