President-elect Joe Biden has chosen California attorney general Xavier Becerra to be his nominee for the pandemic-critical role of secretary of Health and Human Services, according to multiple reports. If confirmed, the 62-year-old veteran politician will become the first Latino ever to serve in that role. With some 80,000 employees and a budget north of $1 trillion dollars, HHS is one the federal government’s largest and most important agencies, and never more so than now, as the U.S. attempts to withstand COVID-19 and facilitate the largest mass-vaccination effort in American history.
Biden is expected to announce Becerra’s nomination, as well as a slate of other top health policy officials for his administration, early this week.
As the New York Times notes, selecting Becerra — who before becoming California’s attorney general was a powerful 12-term Southern California congressman with a well-established record of advocating on behalf of the Latino community — helps Biden keep his pledge to field a diverse Cabinet, as well as blunt recent public criticism about his lack of Latino nominees thus far. Becerra’s lack of experience in both public health and managing large organizations, however, seems likely to draw criticism from health-policy experts — particularly since he would oversee the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the National Institutes of Health. Per the Times:
Some medical experts, who have been pushing the Biden team to name people with medical or public health expertise to serve in health leadership positions, were caught off guard — and unhappily so — by the news of Mr. Becerra’s selection.
In a letter sent last week to Mr. Biden, five leading medical groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians among them — called on the president-elect to appoint “qualified physicians to serve in key positions critical to advancing the health of our nation.”
One person familiar with that effort said people involved were “astounded” by the selection of Mr. Becerra[.]
Politico also reports that Biden’s transition team had to rush to settle on Becerra after a somewhat tumultuous process:
The president-elect team’s focus on setting up a pandemic response team within the White House has raised questions about the role the health secretary will play in the Biden administration, according to four people familiar with the process, creating additional uncertainty around the Cabinet post.
Becerra emerged as a top contender late in the process after Biden’s team considered a number of other candidates including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — who will be reprising that role in the Biden administration — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Raimondo was apparently the Biden team’s top pick, but the governor turned down the role last week, in part, according to Politico, because of what appears to be a complicated game of musical chairs regarding Cabinet positions, as well as concerns among her advisers about what the HHS secretary’s ultimate role would be in the Biden administration’s pandemic response. A source close to Biden countered to Politico that such last-minute shifts in the Cabinet selection process were not unusual, and argued that no matter what, the HHS secretary will continue to have real power and influence within the administration. Becerra, however, appears to have been the only contender who has never served in a top health-policy role.
Instead, since succeeding Kamala Harris as California’s (first Latino) attorney general in 2017, Becerra has made a national name for himself by leading many of the blue-state legal battles against the Trump administration, including some 100 lawsuits that California has filed against the administration. He also led a 20-state coalition effort to defend the Affordable Care Act from a Trump administration-led effort to strike down the law. (The fate of that case now lies with the Supreme Court.) Becerra, who is staunchly pro-choice, also brought felony charges against anti-abortion activists who infamously tried to bring down Planned Parenthood with secretly recorded videos which were then heavily edited to make it appear as though the organization was selling fetal body parts.
How Becerra’s record as an anti-Trump attorney general, his public support for Medicare for All, and his controversial 1990s meeting with Fidel Castro in Cuba, among other possible flash points, play out in the Senate confirmation process remains to be seen.