Hearings are set to begin for Joe Biden’s pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, but disclosures revealing the fact that he earned more than $2 million for pandemic consulting and speaking fees could derail his plans.
That is, of course, if anyone cares that Murthy made money from Carnival Cruise Lines (the owner of cruise ships that became infamous for coronavirus outbreaks last year), Airbnb, and several health-related services and products, among other clients, according to a Washington Post report on ethics documents Murthy filed last month.
The son of Indian immigrants, Murthy received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard and M.D. and MBA degrees from Yale. While working as an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2007, he co-founded “Doctors for Obama.” He went on to serve in the Obama administration as the 19th surgeon general of the United States, before being fired by Donald Trump. During the 2020 presidential campaign (presumably at the same time he was doing pandemic consulting), Murthy advised Biden on COVID-19. In September of 2020, he joined the Biden-Harris Transition Team’s advisory council.
These financial disclosures raise questions about a potential conflict of interest having to do with lucrative industries that are related to health. “There are large questions in the minds of the public about the health and safety risks that might exist in areas like the cruise industry, and we want the surgeon general to give people completely impartial advice,” Jeff Hauser, who leads the Revolving Door Project, told The Washington Post.
It makes sense for Biden to tap experienced people from the previous Democratic administration (which ended just four years ago). But one man’s experience is another man’s swamp. Corporations and organizations want influence and access to decision-makers in the White House. The downside of Obama retreads is that it looks like yet another example of the infamous revolving door, whereby elites land a prestigious government job, cash in, rejoin the government to gain more experience and contacts, and then cash in even more later.
There’s nothing wrong with making money (like Elizabeth Warren, I’m a capitalist!), but when cronies repeatedly oscillate between lucrative corporate gigs and high-powered governmental jobs, there’s always the worry that the public interest will be supplanted by corporate interest; that officials will effectively—maybe even subconsciously—serve as “sleeper” agents for their once and future clients. This dual loyalty problem is, presumably, especially tempting when we are talking about the prospect of making millions of dollars, as is the case with Murthy. And even if our officials are like Caesar’s wife, the appearance of impropriety can weaken public trust in government. This is the sort of thing that liberals, presumably, should be wary of.
Let’s be honest: I think it’s fair to say that Democrats, who are largely remaining silent on the ethical conundrums here, would be having a field day if he were a Republican nominee. Actually, we don’t have to imagine.
Consider, for example, Elizabeth Warren accusing former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb of “revolving door influence-peddling.” Or consider what Bernie Sanders had to say about Alex Azar’s nomination to head HHS: "During Mr. Azar's tenure at Eli Lilly, this multi-billion-dollar corporation dodged taxes while charging Americans outrageously high prices for life-saving prescription drugs. We need an HHS secretary who is willing to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and lower prescription drug prices, not one who has financially benefited from this greed.”
Yes, it’s true that these examples aren’t perfectly analogous. But it’s fair to say that this problem is a bipartisan phenomenon. It’s hard to tell someone who has gained experience and contacts via public service that he or she cannot monetize that experience, particularly when public service constitutes a pay cut. When you’re an important person who knows things, opportunities tend to fall in your lap. Between consulting, speaking fees, and books, there is a lot of money to be made in the world of politics. (It’s worth noting, for example, how Warren made her fortune and how even socialists like Sanders can become millionaires.)
So will this be enough to doom Murthy’s chances? Not likely. If history is a guide, the money alone—even from the dreaded cruise ship industry—won’t be enough to sink this nomination. What is more, at $2.6 million, Murthy is a piker compared to Janet Yellen, who took money from the likes of Goldman Sachs (and other banks she oversees), yet was easily confirmed with 84 votes as Treasury secretary.
While they are unlikely to dwell on Murthy’s past financial ties (which would be hypocritical—not that that has stopped them before), having called gun violence a public health problem, Murthy is unlikely to win any Republican support. What this means is that his nomination is hanging by a thread. As The Washington Post reports, Joe Manchin, “who supports gun rights and voted against Murthy in 2014 citing his political activism, ‘has not decided how he will vote on Dr. Murthy’s nomination,’” according to a spokesperson.
Ultimately, I think Biden gets his man. Unless there’s something truly egregious (and not just the appearance of something), that’s probably for the best. Besides, Joe Biden never promised to “drain the swamp.” That was Donald Trump’s broken promise. Biden’s implicit promise was to return things to normal. And judging by the revolving door, he is.