Ben Carson has no background in government or housing policy. And that’s just fine with Republican senators responsible for vetting his nomination to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department.
Based on early reviews from GOP senators, the retired neurosurgeon is on a glide path to confirmation next year after President-elect Donald Trump selected him Monday to lead the department. Everyone from Trump’s former presidential foes to veteran GOP senators said they have no qualms with Carson’s thin résumé.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior GOP senator. Asked about Carson’s lack of experience in the agency’s areas of expertise, Hatch replied: “No, but he has medical experience … he’ll pick it up so fast their heads will be spinning.”
As with all of Trump’s nominations thus far, Republicans quickly fell in line behind Carson, who grew up poor in Detroit before making a career as a renowned surgeon who helped pioneer cutting-edge medical techniques.
“If you can get a brain surgeon that wants to run housing, that’s a good idea,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) , who sits on the Banking Committee, which will consider Carson’s nomination. “The American people had no concern electing President Trump without experience in government. Maybe what we’ll get out of this is a new set of eyes looking at old processes.”
Indeed, in interviews on Monday evening, GOP senators said Carson’s complete lack of government experience could actually be a selling point. They suggested that Carson is a quick study who will rapidly pick up how to run a Cabinet agency with more than 8,000 employees that oversees public housing and housing finance and is currently run by Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio.
Despite Carson’s lack of credentials, Republicans privately said that they see no reason to antagonize Trump right now, when they need to work with him next year on policy issues and capitalize on the party’s momentum. And despite Carson’s protestations earlier this year that he wasn’t qualified to lead a Cabinet-level department, Republicans said they expected Carson to serve in the Trump administration somewhere.
“We figured he’d have a fairly high-profile role,” said John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “I’m sure he’ll be very interested in making sure those programs work efficiently and effectively. Particularly, I would think, the minority community.”
Democrats took a far dimmer view. Incoming Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he had “serious concerns” about Carson’s lack of preparedness for the job and that “someone who is as anti-government as him is a strange fit for housing secretary.”
“You know, I thought he was a neurosurgeon,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the Banking Committee. “It’d be like putting somebody like me as a secretary of defense. It’s not where his expertise is.”
Still, Democrats are unable to block Carson after a 2013 rules change. All Cabinet appointments can now be confirmed by a simple majority, and Republicans would have to turn on Carson for his nomination to fail.
Not all Republicans were willing to immediately bless Carson. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime Trump critic, said he hadn’t thought about Carson’s nomination, and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has proposed sweeping changes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said he would meet with Carson on Thursday and avoid discussing his credentials until then.
“I like Ben. I haven’t ever talked to him about any housing issues,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He said he had no qualms about Carson’s résumé.
“He’s a brain surgeon, neurosurgeon. He’ll pick it all up,” added Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the Banking Committee. He’ll meet with Carson on Tuesday.
Trump’s outsider status and his own lack of governing experience has longtime senators taking an anti-government view of how Trump should staff his administration. While they praise Trump’s selection of retired Gen. James Mattis as his defense secretary, given his sterling service record, they’re taking the opposite tack with Carson: that he’s someone, like Trump, who could shake things up.
“That may be a plus in some ways. Sometimes you like people to come in with a fresh outlook and new ideas and all of that,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Lack of experience in the field, McCain added, “doesn’t matter.”
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