Conditional ethics

We have written about several problematic Biden nominees for high level positions: Neera Tanden (who is probably not going to make it), Xavier Becerra (who might not), and two DOJ nominees, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke (neither of whom should make it). Vivek Murthy, Biden’s selection for Surgeon General is another nominee to watch.

Murthy, whose hearing is on Thursday, served as Surgeon General under President Obama. It’s impossible to claim that he’s not qualified to hold that position now.

However, Republicans will likely be united, or close to it, in opposing Murthy’s confirmation because of what he did as surgeon general. Most notably, Murthy advocated treating gun violence as a public health problem. That may well be reason enough to oppose him if, like me, you believe this amounts to straying well outside of the Surgeon General’s lane.

But Democrats control the Senate, so the real question is how Senate Dems view Murthy. Some may have concerns about him. Here’s why:

Murthy was paid millions of dollars last year [actually around $2.6 million, according to the Washington Post article I’m quoting from] in coronavirus-related consulting for Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines, Airbnb’s rental properties and other firms, in addition to collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from dozens of organizations, according to ethics documents that Murthy filed this month.

The disclosure caught the attention of longtime health policy hands — saying that Murthy has the most financial entanglements of any surgeon general pick in recent history — and of watchdogs who raise questions about how credible he would be as a spokesperson on the pandemic response and presidential adviser.

My view is that Murthy’s ability to rake in fees for consulting and speaking is not grounds for nixing his nomination. There’s nothing unethical about what Murthy did.

It’s true, apparently, that much of the high-paying work Murthy picked up came after Joe Biden, with whom Murthy has a close relationship, all but clinched the nomination. But it’s still possible that Murthy provided real medical value to Carnival and Airbnb. Stranger things have happened.

Regardless, Murthy has pledged that, if confirmed, he will not participate in matters involving his former clients for one year unless authorized to do so, and in the case of certain matters, for two years. This kind of pledge has, until recently at least, been good enough to satisfy Senators from both parties.

The problem for some Senate Democrats is their stance on such questions when Trump nominees were before them. The Washington Post observes:

On Capitol Hill, Murthy’s consulting work has created an awkward situation for Senate Democrats who attacked Trump’s health nominees for their corporate ties but have been silent on Murthy.

For instance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeatedly highlighted the financial entanglements of former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, even after he left office and joined Pfizer’s board. “This kind of revolving door influence-peddling smacks of corruption,” Warren wrote in July 2019, three months after Gottlieb had resigned from the FDA.

Warren’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Murthy’s financial disclosures.

In the end, the Post expects Murthy to be confirmed on a strict party line vote, with Kamala Harris breaking the tie. That sounds about right.

At one level, this is reassuring. It’s good to be reminded that Democrats don’t really have anything against an entrepreneurial guy making big bucks. It’s just unfortunate that their tolerance for this extends only to fellow Democrats.

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