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Seth Harris: The man with the short list

March 31, 2009
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Who is Seth Harris, the deputy secretary of labor (the number-two position in the Department of Labor) who sources tell us holds the cards, so to speak, in the selection process leading to the nomination of the next assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health?

According to sources, Harris is expected to compile a short list of probably three names to forward to Labor Secretary Solis for her final selection.

Sources tell us Harris could forward the short list of finalists for the OSHA post any time now, with the announcement of a nominee coming from Secretary Solis by mid-April after she conducts short interviews with finalists, or perhaps only with the top choice.

These face-offs can be unpredictable. One former OSHA chief told us he was only asked about his party affiliation, any campaign contributions, and his voting record. Another former OSHA boss told us he was asked by the labor secretary at the time: “Do you think OSHA is manageable?” Another labor secretary impressed an OSHA chief with her knowledge of the agency. “I don’t know who briefed her, but she knew more about what was going on than I did.”

Timetables and deadlines always stand on shifting sands in Washington, but most OSHA-watchers expect confirmation hearings to be conducted this summer. The new OSHA chief likely will not commence duties until the end of summer. That gives the new agency head a little more than three years in office before the 2012 presidential election.

Of course picking an OSHA chief is never left to one person. Harris is far from alone in deciding who makes the final round in the selection process. Emily Spieler, dean of Northeastern University Law School, was a key contact on the Obama transition team for groups and individuals seeking to promote OSHA chief candidates. And some sources believe the AFL-CIO holds veto power over any potential nominee.

Plus, sources say the White House usually designates a “watchdog” to keep its hand in the selection process. Sometimes the White House influence extends to giving names to a gatekeeper such as Harris for him to pass on to his boss the labor secretary. We can’t confirm this has occurred in the current vetting of names, but certainly the White House wants to be comfortable with the pick to head an agency as controversial as OSHA.

Harris is yet another alum from the Clinton era to join the new administration. He spent nearly seven years serving in the Clinton administration as a senior advisor on policy, legal management, and strategy issues for two U.S. Secretaries of Labor.

Harris holds degrees from the Cornell University School of Industrial & Labor Relations, and New York University School of Law.

Most recently, Harris served as a working group leader on President Obama’s labor, education and transportation transition team, which included review of OSHA. Harris was selected as a transition team member while working as a professor and director of the Labor and Employment Law Program at New York University’s School of Law.

While a law professor, Harris wrote a number of articles critical of the Department of Labor under the Bush administration. In particular, Harris criticized Labor Department regulations that were perceived as expanding the white-collar exemptions from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. A strong proponent of flexible work arrangements, Harris is currently a member of the National Advisory Commission on Workplace Flexibility. In addition, Harris is a senior fellow of the Life Without Limits Project of the United Cerebral Palsy Association.

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