Pritzker Avoids Controversy at Nomination Hearing

The Department of Commerce and its 40,000 employees deal with all sorts of seemingly unrelated issues.

Download Audio

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee, told Pritzker what to expect.

The always-affable Rockefeller ticked off a few of priorities within those 12 bureaus.

“The Department of Commerce serves very different constituencies in all parts of our country,” he began Thursday’s hearing. “From the Arctic Ocean, to fish, to telecommunications. Everything.”

If confirmed, Pritzker will oversee the National Weather Service, the country’s broadband and spectrum sales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cyber security efforts and much more.

She seems up to the test.

“I attended college at Harvard and then received my MBA and law degree simultaneously from Stanford,” she told the panel in her prepared remarks.

But fancy degrees don’t get people too far in D.C.

“Then I began working with my grandfather, my uncle and my cousins in the family business,” she went on. “In the 27 years since, I have worked as an entrepreneur both starting businesses from scratch, and growing existing ones.”

That family business is Hyatt Hotels. So Pritzker has always been wealthy, but by all accounts, she’s made her billions on her own, through real estate development and senior housing.

Pritzker’s business acumen drew praise from everyone on the Committee. She hails from Chicago, the president’s home town. Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk introduced her, and told the panel she’ll play a pivotal role in the administration – an administration that’s been criticized for its iffy status in the business community.

“I see her as a voice for business that the president will have to heed,” he said of his constituent.

Senators peppered Pritzker with all sorts of questions, many on the airwaves the government owns and sells, many on home state issues.

Senator Mark Begich said her conversations with Congress will revolve around one key issue.

“The calls you get will be about fish. You’ll think they’re going to be about trade, and tourism, and agreements. They’re going to be about fish,” he joked.

The Commerce Department regulates the nation’s fisheries. Later this year, Congress will need to reauthorize the Magnuson Stevens Act.

Pritzker drew negative press recently for working conditions for hotel employees.

“The notion of subcontracting out to keep minimum wage jobs as a way to maintain jobs is not something you support,” asked Senator Maria Cantwell.

Pritzker replied she does not, and as she did dozens of red-t-shirt-clad hotel union workers nodded in disbelief. Unite Here opposes her nomination because of what it sees as mistreatment of low-wage service workers.

Senator John Thune, the committee’s top Republican saved the most publicized issue for last.

“Some have criticized that you are the beneficiary of some offshore tax avoidance schemes, and that’s it hypocritical for the president to nominate members to his cabinet when he’s criticized that practice for others,” he said.

A prepared Pritzker sat stone faced and answered earnestly.

“Well senator,” she began. “I am the beneficiary of family offshore trusts that were set up when I was a little girl. I didn’t create them, I don’t direct them, I don’t control them.”

After the hearing, Thune said there are some tax issues he still wants more answers on, but he praised Pritzer for handling the hearing well.

The Senate is on recess next week. When it reconvenes in June, the Commerce Committee is expected to pass her on to the full Senate.