Fire Xavier Becerra
How Democrats' insistence on 'treating the cabinet as an identity-politics Rubik's cube' got us an incompetent-yet-unfireable HHS secretary
Back in January, before most of us had ever really thought about monkeypox, the Washington Post ran a lengthy and extensively sourced article about how officials in the Biden administration thought Xavier Becerra, the secretary of Health and Human Services, was doing a poor job.
The article, by Dan Diamond, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Tyler Pager, began:
White House officials have grown so frustrated with top health official Xavier Becerra as the [COVID] pandemic rages on that they have openly mused about who might be better in the job, although political considerations have stopped them from taking steps to replace him, officials involved in the discussions said.
Top White House officials have had an uneasy relationship with Becerra, the health and human services secretary, since early in President Biden’s term. But their dissatisfaction has escalated in recent months as the omicron variant has sickened millions of Americans in a fifth pandemic wave amid confusing and sometimes conflicting messages from top health officials that brought scrutiny to Biden’s strategy, according to three senior administration officials and two outside advisers with direct knowledge of the conversations.
Prior to being named HHS secretary, Becerra had been the attorney general of California. Before that, he had a long tenure in the House of Representatives, where he sat on the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws. His health policy experience had consisted primarily of filing lawsuits to advance Democratic objectives related to the Affordable Care Act. He did not have relevant experience for overseeing agencies with public-health related missions like the CDC and the FDA, which is unfortunate, since that’s now his job.
Becerra seems to have dealt with his managerial inexperience by not managing or coordinating the agencies under him. Per the Post:
The health secretary convenes a morning meeting most days where he gets briefed by top health officials on work related to the pandemic. But he mostly listens to updates without offering input or asking probing questions, two people familiar with the calls said…
When the CDC announced in December, for instance, that it was halving the isolation and quarantine times for those infected with or exposed to the virus without requiring a negative test, [CDC Director Rochelle] Walensky, [NIAID Director Anthony] Fauci and [Surgeon General Vivek] Murthy voiced conflicting messages about the new guidance in public interviews. White House officials were embarrassed by the rollout, which invited fierce public blowback, and thought Becerra or one of his staffers should have coordinated those messages ahead of time, according to two senior administration officials.
Becerra “is all their bosses. And could coordinate them. But he doesn’t,” said a person involved in the covid response.
As monkeypox has come to the fore — and as the response to monkeypox has been hampered by late government action to obtain, approve, and disseminate vaccine that we had already purchased — the reviews of Becerra’s performance have not improved.
Here is Politico today, describing ongoing discontent in the White House with his handling of another epidemic:
As the Biden administration scrambled last month to defuse anger over its sluggish response to the monkeypox outbreak, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra proposed a solution: Blame the states.
The federal government could only provide the tools and guidance needed to slow the disease’s spread, he told White House and health officials. It was up to the states to contain it, and the administration should make that clear.
The idea caused immediate alarm, according to people familiar with the matter…
Despite the warnings, Becerra went out days later and made his case.
“We don’t control public health in the 50 states, in the territories and in the tribal jurisdictions,” he told reporters on July 28. “We rely on our partnership to work with them. They need to work with us.”…
Activists and public health experts who had spent weeks pressuring the administration to ramp up its response were incensed. State officials wondered if they were being set up as scapegoats.
And inside the White House, the episode reinforced the belief that the Health secretary’s eagerness to pass the buck made him ill-suited to manage the health crises that have shaped President Joe Biden’s first term.
Will Biden fire Becerra? Politico says no, and that White House officials are hoping he will leave of his own volition:
There is no chance of Biden firing his Health secretary, senior administration officials said, especially amid multiple public health emergencies and just months to go until the midterms. But there is growing chatter that Becerra might soon find an off-ramp.
Some White House aides believe Becerra, a former California congressman and attorney general, may resign at the end of the year to run for Senate in 2024, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
Oh good, maybe he’ll seek a job with an even higher profile.
So, why can’t Becerra be fired? Well, one major problem with firing him is the same reason he got the job: He meets the dual tests of being Hispanic and a former member of Congress.
“Removing Becerra would likely draw the ire of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other grass-roots groups that pressed Biden to appoint more Latinos to his Cabinet,” WaPo noted in January.
It is not an exaggeration to say that being a Hispanic ex-lawmaker is how Becerra got the HHS job. Biden hastily chose him, despite his manifest lack of relevant qualifications, in order to squelch a PR problem he was having during the transition: Hispanic politicians felt he was not appointing enough Hispanic politicians to senior executive branch positions.
In the weeks after Biden won the election, talks with New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (who, like Becerra, is a Hispanic former congressperson) about becoming a cabinet secretary had gone poorly, and she ultimately was not named to a cabinet post. The fact that Lujan Grisham had declined the Interior secretary job leaked to the press, and her allies were apoplectic about this, seeing it as an effort to punish her for turning down a job. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus demanded that the Biden team make amends.
Here’s what happened next, as Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin describe in their book This Will Not Pass:
[White House Chief of Staff-designate Ron] Klain attempted a conciliatory approach in the meeting with Hispanic lawmakers on December 3, telling them he was sorry about the leaks…
The wounded lawmakers urged Klain and the other Biden aides to speed up the appointment of more Hispanic cabinet members. The contents of the tense meeting leaked to reporters immediately, irritating Klain and panicking transition officials who feared that a public narrative about spurned lawmakers of color could spiral out of control.
Desperate to calm the situation, Biden and Klain made a hasty choice from their remaining candidates for health secretary. The day after the CHC meeting, transition officials reached out to Xavier Becerra, the congressman-turned-California attorney general who was hoping to lead the Department of Justice, to ask if he’d consider taking a different cabinet job — perhaps health secretary. When Becerra said he would, Biden quickly called him to offer him the job, and on December 6, three days after the meeting with Hispanic lawmakers, transition officials confirmed to reporters that Becerra had been chosen.
I repeat: Xavier Becerra was given the top health care job in the Biden administration as a quick fix to a PR controversy about cabinet diversity during the transition.
At least one prominent California Democrat tried to warn Biden officials that this was a mistake. Again from This Will Not Pass:
To some Democrats, Becerra was a baffling choice. He was not a public-health expert. … Among the most flummoxed Democrats was perhaps the most significant political partner for the incoming administration: Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker had worked closely with Becerra in the House and saw him as untrustworthy…
“You should know who you’re hiring,” she chided [top Biden adviser Steve] Ricchetti, according to a person briefed on the conversation. Noting that she was a former colleague of Becerra, and a fellow Californian, she added archly: “I may have some valuable information.”
Of course, if the only specification for the HHS appointment had been that the nominee must be Hispanic, we would have been fine. There are more than 60 million Hispanics in the US, and you could easily have found a Hispanic person who was well-qualified to run the department. But the most important word in the phrase “Congressional Hispanic Caucus” is not “Hispanic”; it is “congressional.” Affinity caucuses don’t simply want people of particular ethnicities named to powerful jobs; they want their own members and ex-members named to those jobs.
Klain knew at the time that he was engaged in some nonsense. Here’s more from Martin and Burns:
In an unguarded moment around New Year’s, Klain told a political ally that he had already grown weary of managing the various identity-based interests of the Democratic coalition. He sighed that the Biden team had itself to blame, at least in part, for treating the cabinet as an identity-politics Rubik’s Cube, and he believed that they had wound up choosing at least two nominees — [Neera] Tanden and Becerra — who might never get confirmed by a Republican Senate.
Of course, that gets at a reason the Biden team may not have as thought as hard as they should have about whether it was really a good idea to give Becerra the HHS job: He had a hyper-partisan reputation, and it was considered likely that Republicans would sink his nomination, reducing it to an honorable mention. But Republicans lost both Georgia Senate runoffs and, thus, the power to block Biden’s cabinet nominees. Joe Manchin did us a solid by keeping Tanden out of the Office of Management and Budget; unfortunately, he did not have the foresight to vote down Becerra, and here we are.
So what are some takeaways from this?
The first and most important is that it is outrageous that Becerra, who is doing an important job very badly, is being kept at HHS in order to meet a diversity goal. He should be fired immediately and replaced with somebody competent, because running government well is more important than making the Congressional Hispanic Caucus happy.
The second is actually not that it is inherently irresponsible to pursue a cabinet that “looks like America.” Again, if an ethnic composition target was the only restriction on the formulation of a cabinet, it wouldn’t be hard at all to fill it with great, qualified hires. The problem is that there are lots of other non-qualification factors that already weigh into cabinet nominations: pleasing powerful members of the party, rewarding one’s political allies, picking people the president personally likes, whatever. If you want to dial up the diversity requirements, you need to dial those down.
That is, you tell the CHC it can have the Hispanic representation it wants in the cabinet, but not with a preference for CHC alumni. And you don’t use the HHS job to reward someone for being a good #resistance fighter in the courts; you fill it with someone who knows how to lead a large and complex health bureaucracy.
It’s the combination of mandates that puts you in the Rubik’s Cube situation and that leads to bizarre and panicky decisions like putting Becerra in charge of HHS. And then when he gets the job and fails at it, he ends up discrediting the whole cabinet diversity project. If you want your diversity initiatives to be durable, they can’t stand in the way of running the government well.
The first step in committing to that principle is firing Xavier Becerra.
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It’s difficult to watch Karine Jean-Pierre’s press conferences and not reach the same conclusion. She may have many gifts, but holding WH press conferences ain’t one of them. Imagine if Biden tried to remove her!
Why couldn’t Biden have tapped a well-qualified, Hispanic public health expert, daring the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to oppose him or her? If they did, it would only reveal their own hypocrisy.