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Congressman to sober Marty Walsh: Do you like Irish whiskey?

He didn’t know the Labor secretary was a recovering alcoholic

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., tried and failed to find common ground with the Labor secretary on Wednesday.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., tried and failed to find common ground with the Labor secretary on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A House subcommittee hearing on President Joe Biden’s budget request got off to an awkward start when ranking Republican Tom Cole sought common ground with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

The Oklahoma Republican, who took issue with Biden’s request for a 14 percent increase in funding for the department, seized on Walsh’s Irish heritage as a potential source of rapport.  

“Since you’re Irish, if you like Guinness, Irish cream ale or Irish whiskey, we’ll have a working basis for a relationship,” Cole said Wednesday during the hearing convened by the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Walsh, whose parents emigrated from Ireland, previously sought treatment for alcoholism.

“Of course he didn’t know,” Cole’s spokesperson said later, asked if the congressman knew Walsh was in recovery. She didn’t comment further.

Health insurance provided through a union construction job allowed Walsh to get treatment in his 20s, he said at his February confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education and Labor and Pensions Committee.

“I am a proud member of the recovery community,” Walsh said at the time. “I share these personal details because they shape my understanding of the struggles working people and families face each and every day. And, they inform my deep belief in the work of the Department of Labor.”

Stereotypes of Irish fondness for alcohol proliferated in Great Britain during the 19th century as the country justified its continued colonial rule of Ireland. The stereotype found new life in the U.S. in the 20th century amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Researchers since the 1970s have debunked a connection between Irish heritage and drinking habits.

Walsh, who appeared before the Appropriations subcommittee to field questions about Biden’s proposed $14.2 billion Labor budget, did not address Cole’s comments at the hearing.

Cole, a registered citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, said a shared “affection for Nicaraguan cigars” made President Barack Obama’s Labor secretary, Tom Perez, a “particular favorite” of his. 

Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who also chairs the full committee, also chimed in.

“I just might add, probably not for the cigar smoking, but I will certainly be around if we can enjoy Irish whiskey,” she said. “We should be all inclusive in this area.”

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