Terry H. Schwadron

June 27, 2021

In one of those skirmishes that have become so common that they pass without a lot of notice, it tuns out that last week, Vice President Kamala Harris was called in to break a tie in the Senate to confirm a Joe Biden appointee — as director of the Office of Personnel Management.

In other words, the HR director. We’re not talking about the Defense Secretary here or the person whose job is to bring control to the Southern border or even our ambassador to North Korea, if we ever were to have one. This is the personnel director for the federal workforce, outside of White House or top political appointees.

Kiran Ahuja, an Indian-American woman, and someone who previous served as chief of staff in that office during the Barack Obama administration and worked in the Obama White House as executive director of the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In other words, she can do the job for which she was nominated in February.

Just for context here, Donald Trump named a 25-year-old Johnny McEntee, who had been his personal aide, to head the White House equivalent, the presidential personnel manager. Trump told McEntee to identify and remove political appointees and career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the Trump administration. And that was okay with then-majority Republican senators.

So, why did we need Harris to break a confirmation vote tie? Shouldn’t this have been straightforward? How controversial could a new HR director be that senators couldn’t either agree on or work out some kind of agreement? Was she going to give too much time off to employees for diversity training?

It turns out that Senate Republicans, led this time by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., were upset over her “support for abortion rights and focus on critical race theory.”

And thus, there was enough Republican opposition to force a tie-breaker. What am I missing?

What Was Said

During Ahuja’s confirmation hearing, Hawley said he was concerned that the then-nominee would integrate critical race theory into federal directives.

Critical race theory is a concept that argues racism is a social construct that is embedded in U.S. legal systems and government policies. Hawley focused on Ahuja’s support of Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi, whose work has been under scrutiny by conservatives for appearing to advance critical race theory, according to The Washington Post. Kendi had spoken at a charity event Ahuja was running.

Actually, Kendi’s popular book on racism is a call for all of us to consider our own behavior as well as that of society, and to suggest that we all should be active “anti-racists” when considering the decades — or centuries — of racist activities from slavery forward. Nevertheless, in the hearing, Ahuja did not take Hawley’s bait and endorse every public statement that Kendi has published, including one that Trump’s election was a considered a victory by white supremacists.

Last year, Ahuja was running a Seattle-based philanthropic organization, and following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, she wrote, “You can’t be a true ally to Black communities until you take it upon yourself to understand our racialized history in its most intimate and heinous forms. And learn, as I did, that all forms of discrimination flow from the subjugation of Black and Indigenous people.”

Hawley asked if Ahuja believes the U.S. is a systemically racist country. She responded, “I’m a big believer that we seek to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity. I understand and appreciate the historical challenges many individuals have experienced, based on their race and ethnicity.” It was kind of what you think an HR director might say, but not good enough for Hawley and company.

Other Republicans s said they were opposing Ahuja because of her support for abortion rights. They asked her if she would support the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from paying for abortions and which Biden excluded from his recently released budget proposal. “The Hyde Amendment is the law of the land, and I will follow the law,” Ahuja said during the hearing. Again, apparently not good enough.

Indeed, the confirmation vote was delayed to corral two missing Democratic senators and to force the 50–50 tie, until Harris cast her fourth tie-breaking vote as VP.

What Is Upsetting?

As a citizen, I am far more concerned that Hawley and Republican senators are not doing their job as I am about whether Ahuja can do hers.

Maybe it is a disease that runs rampant among all senators to let partisanship and party agendas top all else, but these cultural wars that the Washington pols are running are out of control.

As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post noted, Hawley looked “straight into the TV camera above the Senate floor, and said that Biden’s animating ideology tells children that “your dreams” are “unjust” and that “your family” are “oppressors.” What? The culture wars cup runneth over.

Off-stage from the Senate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota’ Gov. Kristi Noem and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott all are using their platforms to advance these hot culture controversies on everything from immigration to critical race theory to gun rights as they seek to promote themselves as heir to Donald Trump, should he fade before the 2024 presidential election. They have each been undertaking local actions on these national culture questions in an apparent contest to show which one is most Trump-like.

In the last week or so, DeSantis signed a bill requiring public schools to set aside at least one minute of silence for children to pray or meditate, issued an order pardoning those arrested or fined for violating local covid rules, sent cops to Texas and Arizona to help with border issues, and now wants public university faculty and students to register their political opinions in surveys to assure political “diversity” in a way that sounds more like propaganda. Noem is in a legal battle over July 4 celebrations at Mount Rushmore, where she once proposed adding Trump’s face, and banning universities from teaching critical race theory over “patriotic education.” In Texas, Abbott has loosened gun limits to eliminate permits, has jumped on the critical race ban and vowed to build his own version of a border wall with a state down payment and public donations. And then there are the voter suppressing laws they all are signing.

What is troubling is not only the positions that these folks are taking, but the zeal with which they pursue them. There is no room for doubt, there is no room for debate. There is no time to consider whether a particular policy is more complicated than a motto or slogan will support, or no room, apparently, for whether a nominee even to run the HR department is anything less than politically pure by some standard that only a zealot for the Right could hold. There is not even room to consider whether halting any discussion over voting rights is itself an expression of systemic racism.

This is no defense for bad Democratic behavior either. It is a plea that we actually look at the problem with a view to fix whatever is wrong.

The idea that a nominee to build the budget proposal that Congress may or may not consider (Biden’s nominee had to withdraw) or to run the personnel office has to pass a political litmus test seems nuts.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer