In pairing the two cabinet picks, Biden balanced Raimondo, who has often been at odds with major labor unions, with Walsh, who enjoys strong support from leaders of the AFL-CIO and earned his union card in 1988 when he joined Laborers Local 223.
Before becoming mayor, Walsh was the head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council.
If confirmed, Raimondo would take over a department with a roughly $8 billion budget and more than 43,000 employees, which traditionally has been the center of business influence within the federal government. She will have a voice in the administration’s “Buy America” efforts, designed to promote domestic manufacturing, and she also will likely need to mollify corporate interests worried by Biden’s promise to give organized labor and environmental groups a greater say in trade policy.
During the Trump administration, Commerce was repurposed as a central player in the president’s multi-front global trade war, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at the helm.
Ross presided over an elastic interpretation of U.S. trade law, which saw Trump cite national security considerations to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
These so-called Section 232 tariffs — named for the provision in U.S. trade law that authorized them — were deeply controversial with trade experts and alienated major U.S. trading partners, including Canada and the European Union.
Along with Trump’s high-profile initiatives, Commerce also ramped up the use of routine trade penalties. Under Ross, Commerce initiated 306 anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations, a 283 percent increase over the Obama administration level. The department now implements 539 import levies designed to prevent U.S. trading partners from unfairly dumping their goods in U.S. markets or subsidizing their sale.
As Trump moved to confront China, Commerce put prominent Chinese corporations such as Huawei on an export blacklist, all but severing them from critical American-made components.
Earlier this month, Commerce added 77 more Chinese companies to its so-called “entity list,” including the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) of China. The department said the action was a response to China’s “corrupt and bullying behavior” and its marriage of civilian technology companies with its growing military.
Biden’s Commerce chief will likely face early pressure to roll back the steel and aluminum tariffs. The president-elect has vowed to review the Trump tariffs, but has made no promises about early relief.
To help workers affected by globalization and automation, Biden has proposed doubling the $333 million budget of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, which Trump had begun eliminating. The president-elect wants the office to help disadvantaged communities apply for federal aid to establish new manufacturing or information technology clusters.
Under Raimondo, Commerce also may place renewed emphasis on promoting U.S. exports while adopting a more active stance on climate change. Biden has promised to enact a “national strategy to develop a low-carbon manufacturing sector in every state.”
If confirmed, Walsh will inherit the Labor Department in the midst of an economic crisis that has fundamentally shaken American workplaces. Tens of millions of workers have lost jobs at some point this year during an economic blow that has been more punishing than any other since the Great Depression.
Though the economy has rebounded faster than initially predicted, the recovery has been slowing for months. Some economists warn that the country may already be shedding jobs again, amid a resurgent coronavirus pandemic and congressional delays in providing additional aid.
Many who have kept their jobs face complicated safety questions at work. The Labor Department has taken a largely employer and industry friendly approach under Trump, angering labor unions and Democrats, and inviting legal challenges.
The agency exempted many workers from the paid sick leave requirements in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and restricted eligibility for unemployment insurance payouts to gig and self employed workers.
Its workplace safety division, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has drawn ire for doing little to enforce safety standards for workplaces during the early days of the pandemic.
Instead of issuing rules for workplaces, that division has issued only guidelines that cannot be enforced with penalties or violations. Fines for workplaces with some of the largest outbreaks in the country were slow to materialize — and paltry when they eventually were issued.
Raimondo, in particular, took significant actions on climate change as governor. As the chief executive of a coastal state, she is familiar with fisheries issues the department handles.
Biden’s focus on climate change may mean an enhanced profile for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is one of the top climate science agencies in the world.
Under Trump, NOAA’s relationship with the department’s leadership was strained, and morale among the agency’s scientists suffered in recent months as politically-appointed officials who question the seriousness of global warming were placed in top NOAA jobs, including as chief scientist.
NOAA’s credibility took a hit from the 2019 “Sharpiegate” episode, when pressure from the White House and Ross forced NOAA to chastise the National Weather Service for its accurate forecast of Hurricane Dorian’s path to justify Trump’s erroneous claim that the storm had threatened Alabama.
Subsequent investigations showed that NOAA and Commerce officials’ actions violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy. The department’s inspector general also faulted senior leaders over the affair.
For the first time since it was created in 1970, NOAA went through an entire presidential term without a Senate-confirmed administrator, instead cycling through two acting administrators.
The Biden administration could establish climate science research and forecasting as a NOAA-wide priority. The agency is expected to play a lead role in coordinating the Fifth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally-mandated report on how climate change is affecting the U.S.