Obama’s New (Good) Cabinet Picks

While we were focused on the Zimmerman trial, the Senate snuck confirmations in for Obama's administration -- and they're good.

By Brentin Mock Jul 29, 2013

While much of the nation was focused on the acquittal of George Zimmerman the U.S. Senate was doing something it rarely does: Work. The legislative body confirmed several of President Obama’s nominations for federal leadership positions, including Gina McCarthy as the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief administrator, Thomas Perez as secretary of the Department of Labor, and–finally–the director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, Richard Cordray.

Many of Obama’s picks had languished for months–Cordray for years–due to Senate Republicans’ resistance. But when Senate Democrats threatened to hold votes that would limit filibustering powers, Senate Republicans, who have used the practice at record rates during the Obama administration, agreed to confirm the president’s picks. A look at three who made it through the Senate:

Gina McCarthy, chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency 

The big question surrounding McCarthy is whether she’ll continue to prioritize environmental justice the way her predecessor, Lisa Jackson, did. (Prior to her departure, Jackson said that she was confident McCarthy would.)

Bob Bullard, the pioneering environmental justice scholar and dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, said in an interview in March, "The idea behind [Lisa] Jackson’s plan was to integrate those [EJ] strategies and policies inside all EPA programs so that no matter who’s there, they’d have their marching orders. Right now I feel comfortable that [McCarthy] will take those plans and move them forward."

What seems certain is that McCarthy will continue to push for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and hold industries accountable for air pollution that causes climate change. The industries that normally appear on that list have played nice so far. For example, the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and natural gas interests, warned about the "burden of unnecessary regulations" but nevertheless congratulated McCarthy on her appointment.

One of McCarthy’s primary tasks is to reign in power plant emissions through new regulations. The American Chemistry Council said it "[looks] forward to working with her to ensure that regulations protect health and the environment while at the same time encouraging innovation, competitiveness and job creation."

Meanwhile the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum tweeted their support of McCarthy:

The United Steel Workers labor union, which works closely with environmental justice activists through the Just Transition Alliance, also said it was pleased with McCarthy’s confirmation and recalled working with her when she was the head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. "She proved to be a pragmatic and reasoned leader who understood that environmental policies can also serve to spur economic growth," the union said in a statement. "She garnered the respect of labor, industry and environmental groups alike." 

Thomas Edward Perez, secretary of the Department of Labor

Back in March we noted that as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division Perez didn’t shy away from supporting organized labor and immigrant workers’ rights. His confirmation could mean that his aggressive pursuit of civil rights violations could carry over to Labor. At the DOJ, Perez’s division brought charges against 254 law enforcement officials in 177 cases between 2009 and 2012. He was also the driving force behind the Justice Department’s opposition to racially discriminatory voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, and voter purging programs in Florida that disproportionately impacted Latinos.

It’s for these reasons that the Latino advocacy organization National Council of La Raza (NCLR) said of his confirmation, "We are confident that Perez has the unique expertise and leadership experience to successfully oversee the work of the Department of Labor, which is especially important for struggling Latinos who face high levels of unemployment."

Labor unions have largely endorsed Perez for Labor since Obama’s March announcement. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said they were delighted about his confirmation. Meanwhile Johanna Puno Hester, president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance of AFL-CIO (APALA) said, "Under Perez’s leadership, the Department of Labor will continue to protect the welfare of American wage earners, immigrant workers and retirees. His personal experience as a child of immigrant parents and his victories on workers’ rights reflect a real understanding and commitment to social justice."

Richard Cordray, director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection 

Senate Republicans have been vowing to block anyone from taking leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) since Elizabeth Warren came up with the idea for the agency nearly two years ago. The idea of an agency working on behalf of consumers after the financial crisis was anathema to Republicans as was her reputation as a Harvard progressive so Obama picked Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, to head up the CFPB. At the time the AFL-CIO said Cordray had an "outstanding record of protecting the public interest."

The NAACP agreed, also saying in 2011 that they were "convinced that [Cordray] will be able to provide much needed guidance on issues which may pertain to the special challenges which have plagued and continue to face racial and ethnic minorities, including African Americans."

Before winning Senate confirmation, Cordray served as head of the CFPB’s enforcement arm and then as director by way of Obama’s January 2012 recess appointment. Without Senate confirmation, Cordray’s appointment would have expired at the end of 2013. 

In a recent statement, the NCLR praised the Cordray’s work as director. "Under Cordray’s leadership, the CFPB has defended consumers and military families, returned nearly half a billion dollars to customers cheated by credit card companies, advanced new protections and disclosures for remittances and issued new mortgage rules that will keep homeownership opportunities open to Hispanic families," NCLR president Janet Murguia said in the statement. "He has proven himself a champion that Latinos and all other consumers and homeowners deserve."