Opinion: The Republicans who confirmed Betsy DeVos have problems with Xavier Becerra? Please

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra speaks at a news conference in Sacramento in 2019
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, shown speaking at a news conference in Sacramento in 2019, on Tuesday faced the first of two Senate hearings on his nomination to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) is a thoughtful guy, and while he’s a reliable Republican vote on the vast majority of issues that come before the Senate, he’s independent enough to have voted to convict former President Trump at Trump’s second impeachment trial (but not the first one).

So it was disturbing to hear Burr make the Republicans’ least principled argument Tuesday against California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s nomination to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: that only someone with significant work experience in the healthcare sector should serve in that post.

“I am deeply concerned that your time in Congress and as California attorney general leaves you woefully unprepared to meaningfully engage in the set of healthcare challenges that require our full attention,” Burr said in his opening statement at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the nominee. “I do not believe that you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment in time.”


Riiiiiggght. Because HHS is somehow different from the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education? Burr had no problem voting to confirm Trump’s pick of a neurosurgeon to lead HUD, a governor who knew nothing about nuclear weapons to lead Energy and a philanthropist who’d never spent a day working in (or even attending) a public school to lead Education.

Health and Human Services is a huge department, and its ambit extends to child care and development in addition to Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare. So the secretary needs to be someone with experience not in a doctor’s office or a community clinic, but in a top job managing a very big organization. Becerra has that, having run the country’s largest attorney general’s office.

The secretary also needs to have deep experience dealing with healthcare policy, and Becerra has that too, having helped craft the Affordable Care Act in the House and then grappling with the many legal issues surrounding its implementation over the last four years. As California’s AG, he also dealt with other issues that healthcare providers and consumers have confronted, such as price gouging and hospital consolidation.

That’s not to say Becerra’s qualifications are impeccable. It’s just to say he’s way more qualified than Ben Carson, Rick Perry and Betsy DeVos were, all of whom were supported by Burr and every other Republican in almost every case. The only exceptions were Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted against DeVos.

At least Burr didn’t try to make the “he’s not qualified” point by stumping Becerra with weedy questions about the programs HHS administers. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas who’s an obstetrician, had no such qualms when he asked Becerra what percentage of the department’s 80,000 employees were medical practitioners. He might as well have asked how many vending machines at HHS carry Coke Zero.

The experience complaint, which at least 11 other Senate Republicans have voiced, seems like a pretext. The real objection appears to be that these senators don’t like Becerra’s support for abortion rights and Medicare for all, the latter of which is a nonstarter for President Biden. Another strike is the partisanship they perceive in his many lawsuits against the Trump administration. Burr also objected to Becerra’s attempt, along with a bipartisan group of 30 other states’ attorneys general, to persuade the federal government last year to temporarily suspend the exclusive rights that Gilead Sciences holds over remdesivir, a drug to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients, so that other manufacturers could make it more readily available.


Those are all policy disputes. And if elections truly matter, senators wouldn’t try to frustrate a new administration’s policies by blocking its nominees. Advice and consent shouldn’t be an exercise in relitigating political fights — it should be a check on a president’s ability to pack the administration with cronies incapable of carrying out the missions of the agencies they lead. DeVos was one such person, but most of Trump’s appointees were not — regardless of what you might think of their policies. And neither is Becerra.

And besides, Republicans can’t stop Becerra from being confirmed by a Senate where Democrats hold the majority, albeit barely. There are no filibusters on presidential nominees anymore, a change made first by a frustrated Democratic majority in 2013, then expanded to Supreme Court nominees by the Republican majority in 2017.

If Becerra’s nomination is going to fail, it would have to be because he lost some Democratic votes and didn’t pick up any Republican support to offset them. So far, only one Democrat has indicated that he’s on the fence: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin has come under fire from some progressive Democrats for balking at two other nominees who also happen to be people of color: Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick for director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.), the nominee for Interior secretary.

Forty years ago, senators of both parties were far more willing to give presidents the freedom to fill their cabinets with people aligned with the president’s policies, regardless of how controversial those policies might be. A case in point: 32 Democrats voted in favor of James G. Watt’s nomination to be Interior secretary, even though Watt’s claim to fame was suing to open more public lands to exploitation. If we still lived in those times, Becerra wouldn’t have to worry about one Democrat potentially defecting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those times are long gone.