West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin made news on Friday night when he announced his opposition to the confirmation of Neera Tanden, President Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden’s “overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget,” Manchin said in a statement. “For this reason, I cannot support her nomination.”
If Manchin really means what he said — if his opposition is rooted in principle and not an attempt at political triangulation — then he should also reject the nomination of Xavier Becerra to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Becerra’s transgressions are far graver than Tanden’s gratuitously insulting tweets, and his confirmation would have a much more toxic and detrimental impact on the country.
As California attorney general, Becerra has been an exceptionally ruthless aggressor in the culture wars. He has attempted to use the power of the state to crush a wide array of average Americans — from religious dissenters to pro-life pregnancy counselors and independent journalists.
In 2017, Becerra filed felony charges against the pro-life activists and citizen-journalists who had gone undercover to expose Planned Parenthood’s gruesome practice of selling the body parts of aborted babies to biotech companies. Becerra had not gone after animal-rights activists for similar investigative tactics. In response to Becerra’s actions, one writer at the left-wing magazine Mother Jones called the Planned Parenthood videos “a legitimate investigation, and no level of government should be in the business of chilling it.” Becerra was rebuked by the liberal editorial page of the Los Angeles Times for his “disturbing overreach.”
In 2018, Becerra and the State of California were smacked down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case NIFLA v. Becerra over a state law forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise abortion.
In 2019, Becerra aggressively opposed the merger of two religiously affiliated hospital chains in California because the resulting consolidated chain could reduce access to both abortion and gender-reassignment surgeries.
In 2020, Becerra was rebuked for his zealous defense of a California law requiring abortion coverage in insurance plans offered by churches. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that California’s abortion mandate violated a federal law known as the Weldon amendment, which prohibits federal funding of states and localities that force health providers and insurers to participate in or cover abortion. Becerra refused to comply.
In 2021 — in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic — it is hard to think of a worse choice than Becerra to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
To fight the pandemic, the Biden administration needs a health and human services secretary who has the broad trust of the public, but it’s going to be impossible for Becerra to earn the trust of those who constitute nearly half the country and believe (with reason) that Becerra wants to crush them and drive them from the public square. Democrats only need to imagine the difficulty that a culture warrior such as Rick Santorum would have in convincing the residents of Berkeley, Calif., to “trust the science” about the benefits of a new vaccine. (The comparison is not entirely fair to Santorum: The former GOP Pennsylvania senator was a lightning-rod in the culture wars, but he had some experience with health policy and wasn’t nearly as zealous as Becerra.)
What’s just as bad as Becerra’s lack of trust from the public is his lack of relevant experience. He has no experience in public health or medicine or at the Department of Health and Human Services. He lacks executive experience running a large and complex organization — the kind of experience that would be useful as the government distributes vaccines and adapts to new variants of the virus.
Any Biden nominee to run HHS will share the president’s liberal views on abortion and transgender issues, but Becerra’s record guarantees that he will use HHS’s broad rulemaking authority to aggressively wage a culture war and alienate many Americans. There is nothing Becerra can say at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that can erase that record.
Many of Biden’s other nominees show that the president is more than capable of selecting qualified Cabinet members with bipartisan credibility. Treasury secretary Yellen, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin were each confirmed by overwhelming bipartisan Senate majorities.
It has been befuddling to many of Biden’s friends and foes alike that he chose an unqualified ideologue to run HHS during a pandemic. A majority of the Senate should reject Becerra and give Biden an opportunity to try again.