McManus: The dumbest thing Cruz said last week wasn’t about a trip

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said something unusually ridiculous last week, even for a senator whose response to a disaster in his state was to head to Cancun.

Explaining why he plans to vote against the confirmation of President Biden’s candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Cruz complained that Xavier Becerra “has no experience in virology.”

“Would you hire me to remove your appendix?” asked the Harvard-trained attorney.

The question doesn’t seem entirely relevant, but as he asked, my answer is: No. I would not trust Cruz with sharp objects under any circumstances.

But Becerra is not being nominated to operate members of Congress, not even to decrypt viruses. They hire him to administer federal health policy, to negotiate with other politicians, write regulations, and run a sprawling bureaucracy.

Compared to that job description, Becerra’s resume as a longtime U.S. congressman followed by a stint as California attorney general looks pretty good.

He is a very competent politician and lawyer, not a doctor. And that’s what most cabinet-level jobs need, not technical experts, however brilliant they may be.

That’s especially true at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Our problem is not basic research; the virus has been sequenced and we have three fully approved vaccines. The challenge now is political and administrative: shoot people.

Becerra has “zero experience in everything related to health,” Cruz said.

That was another strange statement. In fact, the California attorney general has years of experience in health care policy. He was a member of the House committee that wrote the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. During 24 years in the House, he also worked on dozens of other provisions aimed at controlling drug costs and improving Medicare and Medicaid.

While in Sacramento, Becerra led the coalition of state attorneys general that fought a Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare. And in 2018 he sued Sutter Health, the Northern California hospital giant, for using monopoly power to keep prices artificially high; Sutter settled for $ 575 million.

That sounds like health care expertise to me, and it’s the kind of experience Biden will want when he gets to his top post-pandemic priority of expanding and adjusting Obamacare.

Cruz and other Republicans have not always demanded that the Secretary of Health be a scientist. President Trump’s last head of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, was a former lawyer and lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company.

Trump put a doctor in charge of the Health Department, surgeon-turned-Congressman Tom Price, but the experiment did not go well. Price was forced to resign after Politico revealed that he had spent at least $ 340,000 in agency money on private flights.

In Becerra’s case, Republicans have at least one substantial problem: They don’t agree with her position on the right to abortion. He is in favor; they oppose.

In 2017, Becerra sued the Trump administration over its decision to allow employers with “conscientious objections” to omit contraceptive coverage from their employees’ health plans. The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns, later joined the demand from the president’s side.

That put Becerra in the middle of a legitimate, heated and long-running debate. He occupies the standard Democratic position; His Republican critics want his voters to know that they are defending the conservative barricades.

But there is also a newer phenomenon at work here: the increasingly stark politicization of nearly all cabinet nominations.

For more than 200 years, the Senate allowed presidents to appoint almost anyone they wanted to cabinet seats, unless a candidate was in trouble with criminal charges, unpaid taxes, or other misconduct. Nominees were often unanimously confirmed.

Since the 1980s, the boundaries have been moved. Now, cabinet confirmations are often played out as extensions of existing political debates between the president’s party and the opposition.

When Barack Obama was president, a majority of Republicans voted against his nominees for Labor, Tom Pérez, and Education, John King Jr.

When Donald Trump became president, all Democrats voted against Betsy DeVos for Education and Price, the unfortunate doctor from Health and Human Services.

Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn. None of his nominees so far have sailed unopposed. A Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, has voted against the 10 who have reached the Senate. Cruz has voted against nine of the ten (he let Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III escape). What those two senators have in common is that they are both potential presidential candidates, and they both tried to block the certification of electoral votes for Biden.

Some Republican institutionalists still vote the old-fashioned way, leaving the president to have his options. Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah have resisted their party to vote for Biden’s 10 nominees.

They have not joined the chorus complaining that Becerra is not a research scientist, a good sign for the nominee, who will likely be voted on next week.

They are right. A president’s cabinet does not need a virologist in Health and Human Services, an architect in Housing and Urban Development, or a fighter pilot to lead the Pentagon.

The most prominent cabinet secretaries in recent years have been generalists, not specialists. George P. Shultz, who held four cabinet-level positions, was a professor at a business school, an expert in management. Leon E. Panetta, who was three, started out as a member of the House of Representatives, like Becerra.

If Biden is nominating capable politicians and managers rather than surgeons, economists, or astronauts, that’s a good thing.

The success of an administration often comes down to an art that many presidents neglect: managing government well. Ask Obama, whose biggest stumbling block was the failed rollout of his health plan. He didn’t need a virologist; needed better managers.

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