Newly confirmed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson made his debut at the agency this week, and very quickly managed to do the thing that Carson does best, besides neurosurgery: say something bonkers.
In this case, he described those sold into slavery and brought to these shores as immigrants (albeit, he allowed, “involuntary”), which is ... not how immigration, or slavery, works ― sorry! Coming on the heels of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lauding historically black colleges and universities as a model of “school choice,” it makes one wonder how far the Trump administration will go to revise the history of the black experience in America. Perhaps Jim Crow will be praised for stoking civic engagement, and decades spent in fear of racial terrorism will be cited as something that really “worked the core,” or something.
Those who have followed Carson’s recent foray into politics know that he’s come awfully far without much of a discernible policy platform and that he’s primarily filled that vacuum with a bunch of truly cuckoo notions. By contrast, his more tethered-to-reality confidants have said things like, “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” and “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
But here’s a real kick in the pants: Six Democrats voted to confirm this guy when the full Senate had its say on the matter.
What was that about?
That’s a good question, given the fact that Carson’s experience with matters like urban economic development and affordable housing concerns was, for all intents and purposes, the null set.
So what was it about this inexperienced, part-time huckster that convinced these Democrats to pull the trigger on this confirmation and consign residents of affordable housing to the whims of a guy who couldn’t even remember the baseline details of his own policy proposals from one day to the next?
Some are maddeningly vague about their decision. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), for instance, offered a statement that began like so:
Dr. Carson has a compelling personal story of rising from an impoverished background to become an accomplished surgeon. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development plays an important role in addressing affordable housing, combatting homelessness, and upholding civil rights and non-discrimination laws.
I’m just going to pause right there to point out that while Warner has written two sentences of true facts, they don’t actually relate to each other. And yet they are here presented as if something has been logically demonstrated. He might as well have said, “Ben Carson is an accomplished neurosurgeon. Oranges are a citrus fruit. QED.”
He assured me that he is a “huge fan” of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and its subsequent amendments, which prohibit discrimination in housing, and will vigorously enforce laws proscribing redlining. Based on these promises, I will vote for Dr. Carson’s nomination and will continue to monitor his, and HUD’s, actions closely to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination that Americans hold dear will be maintained.
OK, so Carson is such a big fan of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that he promises to not bring back one of the most toxic racist practices of the last century. Good to know! Low bar cleared.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) seems to have had a similar experience meeting with Carson ― he made some vague statements that were good enough to earn her vote, along with a promise to keep an eye on things:
When I met with Dr. Carson in my office and questioned him during his confirmation hearing, he made clear his intention to recognize the full social and economic scope of impediments to safe, affordable housing. I’m supporting Dr. Carson today because that approach is crucial to spurring housing opportunity for rural and low-income families on tribal lands and in rural communities alike ― and I intend to hold him to his word. Any successful blueprint begins with a solid foundation, and I look forward to laying the trauma-informed groundwork with Dr. Carson so that our nation’s housing solutions are strong enough for communities that have withstood poverty, crime, abuse, and other adverse experiences and are built to last.
Carson “made clear his intention to recognize” the entire mission of the agency he’s been tapped to run? And that is the “solid foundation” on which to create a “successful blueprint”?
Also: The foundation does not come before the blueprint; that is not how buildings work.
A handful of the senators who voted to confirm Carson at least did so with some notion that they’d secured specific commitments. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), for example, instructed Carson to support 30-year mortgages and “support the Interagency Council on Homelessness.” Also, Tester may have secured a commitment from Carson to come meet some buffalo.
Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) ― who reminds Carson of Columbo, apparently ― both believe they fully turned Carson on to the task of lead remediation. Donnelly has been working on alleviating a lead crisis in East Chicago, while Brown cited a “scourge of lead hazards that have impacted Ohio families.” Both senators issued press releases in which they claimed to have “secured commitments” from Carson in this regard. Brown’s press release contains this familiar refrain: “Let me be clear: I will do everything in my power to hold Dr. Carson accountable for making good on his promises.”
That might be a tricky task. In Carson’s prepared remarks to the Senate banking committee that presided over his confirmation hearing, he included some text on lead exposure and the ways it can especially harm children. However, as The Washington Post reported, during his actual testimony, Carson deviated from his prepared remarks, lapsing into a testimony that “more closely resembled his speeches as a candidate for president.”
By doing so, though, Carson avoided what might have been a flap. As the Post noted, the material he included in his prepared remarks on lead and its attendant health risks was lifted wholesale from a 2008 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I’m not sure what’s worse: not mentioning lead poisoning at all during your confirmation hearing, or being prepared solely through purloined paragraphs. I mean, on some level, at least Carson cared enough to plagiarize some good stuff, right?
So, let’s see. That’s five Democrats who all voted to confirm Carson. Who have we forgotten? Well, there’s Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) ― who as a Democratic senator from West Virginia is basically a Republican anyway.
Also, Sen. Angus King, an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, voted to confirm Carson. King is well-known for being very ideologically incoherent and procedurally illiterate, which are things Maine senators have somehow traditionally managed to sell to Beltway pundits as an endearing trait rather than a disqualifying one.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget that a bunch of other Democrats on the Senate banking committee voted unanimously to to advance Carson’s nomination to the Senate, for whatever reason. This included Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who explained her action by saying that Carson “made good, detailed promises” that serve as a “toehold on accountability,” which Warren committed herself to pursue personally. “If Dr. Carson doesn’t follow through on his commitments,” she wrote, “I will be the very first person he hears from ― loudly and clearly and frequently.”
So as you back over the various statements these Democrats made about Carson, some similar themes emerge. They all felt like they had “productive meetings” with Carson. They all believe they managed to “secure commitments” from Carson during the confirmation process. Finally, they mostly promised to use what resources they had at their disposal to make sure Carson keeps his promises.
Obviously, between their legislative concerns and the many hours a day they spend fundraising, it’s pretty clear these senators will have scads of free time to specifically watch over Carson at HUD with eagle eyes and keep track of his doings. Sure, that should work. You know, if there’s one thing Congress has been historically good at, it’s definitely never allowing HUD to become a slush fund of graft and corruption.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.