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The Beginning of the Next Administration

Date posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Blog poster: Doug Farquhar, JD

With Election Day signaling the end of election season, December is time to review who is set to fill which positions.

Just to bring everyone up-to-date, Joe Biden will be our next president. We still are unsure who will control the Senate. Democrats will control the House and Republicans will control a majority of the states.

Although there are over 4,000 political appointee positions in the U.S. government, approximately 1,200 require a Senate confirmation and only 757 are considered key positions. Of these 757 positions, 535 slots have been confirmed at the end of the Trump administration and these nominations can take a while before they receive a Senate confirmation. Many positions operate in an acting capacity where people are appointed by the president but await a Senate confirmation. Acting positions are limited to 210 days, by which time a permanent nominee should be appointed and confirmed by the Senate.

Most Cabinet agencies come with around 13–14 nominated positions that require Senate confirmation. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has 18 appointees, including the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administrator. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has 14 appointees to nominate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) each have 13 appointees to nominate.

President-elect Biden announced his choices for his health team in early December. He chose California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as the next Secretary of HHS, replacing Alex Azar. Biden picked Massachusetts General Hospital Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an HIV/AIDS expert, as the nominee to head up CDC.

Regarding the federal agencies that oversee food, Biden named Obama's Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak to return to USDA. Dr. David Kessler oversaw FDA under Obama as well, and could return as FDA Commissioner. The USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety has not been named, meaning current Under Secretary Mindy Brashears could remain in that position. That position, however, has gone unfilled more often than filled so it might remain vacant.

At FDA, Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas is not a political appointee and is likely to remain there. At CDC, Dr. Pat Breysse, director of CDC's National Center of Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, is also a nonpolitical appointee and will remain.

Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge has been selected as the secretary of HUD. Her northeast Ohio roots might make her sympathetic to low-income housing concerns including lead-based paint, but she has also emphasized working on food security.

The choice of Katherine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative reflects that Biden seeks to keep up the pressure on the Chinese government to enforce food quality and other health and safety standards. It has been noted that Biden likely will keep the tariffs that the Trump administration imposed.

As for U.S. EPA, several choices have appeared. Mary Nichols, who probably has done more to reduce air emissions in Southern California than anyone else, was a front-runner for the position. Activists on both the left and right, however, have called her nomination into question. Former Obama Region IV Administrator Heather McTeer Toney has also been listed as a front-runner.

Three state environmental directors are currently being vetted for U.S. EPA. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Director Basil Seggos and North Carolina's Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality Michael Regan are being discussed. Former Delaware Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Collin O'Mara, who currently heads the National Wildlife Federation, is also a possibility. Any of these three would bring a state perspective to the position. Richard Revesz, a law professor at New York University Law School who specializes on climate change, has been mentioned as a possible contender.

Even after the U.S. EPA administrator is confirmed, there are 13 other positions requiring confirmation including assistant administrators for the Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Water, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Office of Research and Development.

The HHS Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response is a nominated position that requires confirmation by the Senate. No names have been put forward. With the current issues brought forth by Senator Patty Murray's office, it is likely that Secretary Robert Kadlec will leave the position before the January inauguration.

About the blog poster: Doug Farquhar is the director of Government Affairs at the NEHA in Denver, Colorado.