On today’s podcast, Peter and Eric are taking attendance. And where the government’s COVID response is concerned, Xavier Becerra has been ditching school.
Becerra is President Biden’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. One of the first Cabinet members named in the new administration, Becerra runs the massive HHS bureaucracy that oversees $1.3 trillion in mandatory spending each year, and another $94.5 billion in discretionary funds. HHS manages Medicare, Social Security, and many other spending programs. It also oversees the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. Therefore, Becerra is the boss of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
The government’s actions to stop or contain the COVID pandemic certainly do need leadership and coordination from HHS and its head guy. Yet, news reports recently have shown that Becerra never attends meetings related to the government’s COVID response. This despite his promise before he took the job that fighting COVID would be “his top priority.” Instead, he has spent his time on other issues, such as Biden’s abortion policy and insurance coverage of gender transition surgery, and traveling to “promote President Biden’s broader agenda,” according to a White House spokesperson.
Officials inside the administration say Becerra’s limited role leaves them without a strong intermediary between a fast-moving White House and HHS’s methodical scientific agencies — contributing to breakdowns in coordination that have hampered the response and fueled accusations of political interference. They say Becerra plays a secondary role in selling those COVID-19 policies to the public, deferring to subordinates like Murthy, Walensky and top infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci. “They brief him,” one person close to the pandemic response team said. “But he’s not a decider on response activities.”
There is a lot to do for an administration that, as Peter says, promised a “summer of freedom” in 2020 and now tells us, as Eric replies, that unvaccinated children face a “Winter of Death.” Shortages of COVID tests are just one of the failures that can be placed at Becerra’s door, along with the fentanyl problem and the health situation at America’s Southern Border.
The Government Accountability Institute (GAI) has previously shown that other HHS agencies dropped the ball on what is supposed to be their core mission – controlling diseases. The CDC only spends about 10% of its annual budget on stopping “zoonotic diseases,” GAI found in its study. Peter discussed this on a previous podcast last summer. The main point is what often happens in large bureaucracies – mission creep. As Peter explains, “If you’re running CDC and you expand the budget, your ability to [personally] cash in once you leave office grows.”
Becerra came to HHS after serving as the Attorney General of California. While there he had a reputation as a political operative. An editorial by the Los Angeles Times took him to task for politicizing the state’s ballot initiative process.
According to Becerra’s required financial disclosure, his wife, Carolina Reyes, receives “director fees” from a group called the California Health Care Foundation. Contributions from members, employees or owners of that group, and those individuals’ immediate family members, donated 100% to federal Democratic candidates and 99.74% to Democratic congressional candidates, according to Open Secrets. In addition, the group itself donated a total of $54,233 to Democrats in the 2020 elections, the most the party has donated to an election from 2004-2020.
GAI also reported a few years ago on President Barack Obama’s meetings with his cabinet. Our report found that zero meetings were with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. This at a time when the Obama administration’s number one domestic priority was standing up the website for “Obamacare,” which was a massive failure.
Stepping back from Becerra’s invisibility, Peter shifts to the bigger picture. He says, “People are getting tired of the imposition and control” and asks, “when does this become a political liability?”
The administration appears to be “fresh out of ideas,” Peter says. “The claims and positions and statements that a lot of epidemiologists have been making — that, unfortunately, this disease has to take its course — increasingly seems to me to be where we’re leaded as far as national leadership is concerned.”
Don’t miss next week’s episode, when Peter and Eric will discuss GAI’s brand new report on the activities of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions. Grading will not be on a curve.
Also, Peter teases the release of his newest book, sure to be another bestseller, on Jan. 25. He doesn’t share much detail, yet, but says, “it is the scariest book I’ve ever done,” and concludes that “it’s certain I don’t have any friends left in Washington DC after this.”