Duckworth and Hirono Holding Biden Nominees Hostage
Appoint more Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Or else!
Two prominent Democratic Senators of Asian descent are leveraging a Democratic President for more Asian-American and Pacific Islander nominees.
NPR (“Sens. Duckworth, Hirono Will Block Biden Nominees Over Lack Of AAPI Representation“):
Outraged by the lack of Asian American representation in President Biden’s administration, Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono have pledged to vote no on any White House nominees who aren’t diverse candidates.
“There’s no AAPI representation in the Cabinet,” Duckworth, of Illinois, told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday afternoon. “There’s not a single AAPI in a Cabinet position. That’s unacceptable.”
Duckworth, who is Thai American, said she had been talking to the White House for months over concerns about the lack of representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, even giving the White House names of “well-qualified AAPI” candidates “who never even got a phone call.”
Biden pledged to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, and about half of his Cabinet picks have been nonwhite. Speaking about Duckworth’s decision on Tuesday, Biden said: “We have the most diverse Cabinet in history. We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels.” There are no Asian Americans in Biden’s Cabinet and just a handful in top positions like U.S. trade representative and surgeon general.
Duckworth said her frustration hit a breaking point after a call Monday evening with Biden aides during which she said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon pointed to Vice President Harris’ South Asian heritage.
“Last night, that was the trigger for me,” Duckworth said. “To be told that ‘well, you have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else’ is insulting.” Duckworth noted she has heard that sentiment from the administration “multiple times.”
“That is not something you would say to the Black caucus: ‘Well, you have Kamala — we’re not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet because you have Kamala.’ Why would you say it to AAPI?”
After the call, she says she notified the administration of her decision to cast “no” votes “until they figure this out.” She said she will still vote for racial minorities and LGBTQ nominees.
There are only 15 cabinet secretary posts to go around. It’s rather hard to hit every demographic wicket with them. Still, while the combined AAPI population is roughly 6.1%, less than half that of the Black population, Duckworth is right that “but Kamala” is not a great response.
Hirona’s position is more nuanced:
Hirono, of Hawaii, echoed Duckworth’s comments, telling reporters she plans on joining Duckworth in voting no on non-diverse nominees until the White House commits that there will be “more diversity representation in the Cabinet and in senior White House positions.”
Hirono added that she’s not solely calling for more AAPI representation.
“This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. So I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an LGBTQ person, an AAPI person. I’d just like to see more diversity representation.”
Duckworth wants more, though:
Asked what appointments the Biden administration could practically make at this point in time, Duckworth mentioned the Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Management and Budget and suggested the administration could make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary position.
Duckworth’s decision could become a significant roadblock to future nominees in a Senate where Democrats have the thinnest possible majority.
Had Neera Tanden, Biden’s original pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, been confirmed, she would have been the first South Asian American woman to serve in the position. Tanden withdrew her nomination in early March after multiple key senators said they wouldn’t support her.
The Senate has already confirmed Katherine Tai as the U.S. trade representative, but as Hirono told CNN on Tuesday, “I realize that we have Katherine Tai, but I don’t think the trade representative is what the community understands as a Cabinet level.”
While I find the identity politics here rather exhausting—policy matters more than personnel and it’s not like there haven’t been prominent Asian-Americans in cabinet posts—to the extent the administration is touting its historic diversity, Duckworth might as well fight for AAPI representation. And it is odd that this is “the first time in more than 20 years a president’s Cabinet has not included at least one AAPI secretary.”
And, WaPo reports (“White House promises AAPI liaison after ultimatum from Sens. Duckworth, Hirono“) they’re already getting results.
The White House agreed late Tuesday to add a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison after two Democratic senators threatened to vote no on nominees because of what they said was a lack of sufficient AAPI representation in President Biden’s Cabinet.
“The President has made it clear that his Administration will reflect the diversity of the country. That has always been, and remains our goal,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The White House will add a senior level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison, who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
Whether that will be enough, we shall see. [UPDATE: Apparently, yes. Duckworth, at least, says she will back off.]
Jonathan Bernstein thinks this is democracy in action:
This is good stuff. Senator has concerns; senator uses leverage to address concerns; president and senator compromise. That’s how the government is supposed to work!
Some people are going to complain about this because they don’t believe that Duckworth’s concerns are legitimate. Why should anyone care about the ethnicity of administration officials? But that’s not how politics works in a democracy. Of course politicians think in terms of groups!
The question is which groups have representation, and the answer is generally all the politically relevant groups, as defined by group members. Baseball fans, people who are left-handed and those who hate onions — to choose three groups I strongly identify with — don’t (usually) think of themselves politically. Other groups — based on industry, employment type, location, religion and, yes, ethnic groups, do think of themselves politically, for sensible reasons. And therefore they want political representation. It’s not up to me whether basketball fans, people who listen to ska bands, engineers, people from Nebraska or Asian-Americans think of their groups as politically relevant to them — it’s up to those people themselves. That’s how democracy works.
If we recognize that groups and their preferences are behind a lot of what’s really contested in politics, it’s evident that we’re not really talking about majorities getting — or not getting — their way. Yes, voting majorities can be constructed, most often in the U.S. through the grand coalitions that make up the two major political parties. But it’s a mistake to think of those “majorities” as reflecting underlying majorities in the electorate. Outside of their party — outside of any coalition — almost all politically relevant groups are minorities of the entire polity.
Parties and their coalition-formation tendencies are (extremely!) healthy parts of a democracy, and that’s certainly one way that groups are represented. But at its best, the Senate can also allow for representation of groups and their interests outside of, or alongside of, the parties. That’s what happened when Duckworth and Hirono took action this week. This time it was for ethnic-group representation. Next time it may be for a union, or for some parochial state interest, or for who knows what?
Regardless, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observes, “Duckworth is the first Dem senator other than Joe Manchin to realize that, in a 50-50 Senate, anyone can be Joe Manchin!”
UPDATE: Amid some grist for the Republican readership Jim Geraghty makes two solid points. First, it’s simply inconceivable that Biden is intentionally slighting AAPI candidates for the cabinet. Second, Biden has nominated plenty of AAPI people to very-high-level positions in the government. In addition to Vice President Harris and the failed nomination of Tanden:
- Katherine Tai to be U.S. trade representative
- Vanita Gupta, daughter of Indian immigrants, to be associate attorney general
- Nellie Liang to be undersecretary for domestic finance at the Department of the Treasury
- Julie Su to be deputy secretary of labor
- Lina Khan, daughter of Pakistani immigrants, to be commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission
- Uzra Zeya, another daughter of Indian immigrants, to be State Department’s undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights
- Dilawar Syed to be deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
- Kiran Ahuja to be director of the United States Office of Personnel Management
- Rohit Chopra to be director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau
And, he rightly notes, “those are just the executive-branch positions that require Senate confirmation, so far; this isn’t counting all the Asian Americans working in the Biden White House and administration in presidentially appointed positions.“
Duckworth and Hirono have every right to press this issue and they seem to be getting traction for doing so. But it’s not a cause with great merit.