A few of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet nominees easily cleared a new confirmation process, but state senators could step up scrutiny this week as the administration’s top environmental and health administrators face questions.
“I’m worried about it,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Nash County Democrat who said the politics involved in those two agencies may tempt GOP lawmakers to depart from what has so far been a measured approach.
Senators have questioned five agency heads so far as part of the new process the legislature established for reviewing the governor’s top appointments. Although Cooper has objected to those hearings, a three-judge Superior Court panel ruled earlier this month that lawmakers are within their rights to sign off on Cabinet nominees.
Cooper has yet to appoint permanent heads for the Department of Revenue and Department of Information Technology. His nominees for the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Commerce are awaiting hearings. All three have taken office.
Mandy Cohen, a former federal official who helped administer the Affordable Care Act, goes before the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday. Michael Regan, a former Environmental Defense Fund vice president, will face the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources Committee on Thursday.
Cohen and Regan are expected to encounter somewhat sharper interrogations than nominees like Military and Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Hall had earlier this month. Hall, Transportation Secretary James Trogdon and Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks easily won approval by the Senate.
Republican senators have been deeply skeptical of anything to do with Obamacare or anyone who had a hand in it. And since 2011, the GOP majority in the chamber has pushed for fewer environmental restrictions on business, a philosophy they could see as clashing with Regan’s background.
In both cases, the key questions will be whether the Democratic governor’s appointees will carry out policy blueprints drafted by the Republican majorities.
“I’m under no illusions we’re going to go through this process and find a strong conservative,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican who will play a role in Cohen’s hearing. As they did for other acting secretaries who have gone before confirmation panels, Hise said lawmakers will focus on three main areas: qualifications, conflicts of interest and willingness to follow the law. It will be the last item – willingness to follow the law – that is likely to get the most attention during the two hearings scheduled for this week, Hise said.
“We’ve had quite a few issues in the past with willingness to follow the law in that agency,” Hise said of DHHS – pointing to conflicts between how lawmakers drafted legislation and how bureaucrats interpreted it.
Bryant said that if the Senate follows the rules laid out for confirmations, Cohen and Regan should have no problems.
“These candidates are more than qualified,” she said. But she said Regan's background in environmental advocacy is thought to make him “vulnerable.”
Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said Cohen's experience working on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act should be viewed as an asset.
“What I know is senators don’t have a cause for concern about her knowledge and expertise,” Robinson said, adding that she is prepared to defend Cohen before the committee if needed.
So far, Cultural Resources Secretary Susi Hamilton has had the roughest time before a committee because some lawmakers didn’t like her firing of the director of Tryon Palace in New Bern. Still, Hise and others said they expected her to receive a confirmation vote by the full Senate sometime this week.
With nearly three full months under his belt, Cooper still has not appointed permanent heads for the revenue or IT departments.
“I’m very concerned,” said Sen. Andrew Brock, a Davie County Republican who is both a Finance Committee chairman and has had a hand in overseeing IT-related issues in the Senate. He noted that at the current rate, Cooper would not have a revenue secretary in place before the mid-April tax-filing deadline.
A spokeswoman for Cooper said both jobs should be filled in the “coming weeks.”
Brock said he believed that the IT appointment would face a relatively easy confirmation path, as long as that person is qualified.
“It’s the least political place in state government. You’re just concerned with whether things work or not,” Brock said.
Cooper’s choice for revenue secretary might get a harder look. Cooper has pushed for more spending than senators are likely to favor. And senators have sometimes clashed with revenue officials who don’t interpret tax laws to their satisfaction.
“We want to know how that person thinks,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican. “They won’t always interpret things the way we do.”
Tillman said he would be looking for someone who would not only be a good administrator, but who might be a voice inside the Cooper administration that would urge restraint on spending.
Dr. Mandy Krauthamer Cohen
Cohen obtained a bachelor of science degree from Cornell University, a master of public health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health and a medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine. She is an internist. Cohen was executive director of Doctors for America, a policymaking and advocacy group promoting better health services, and deputy director at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Women’s Health Strategic Healthcare Group. Most recently, she was chief operating officer and chief of staff for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
A native of Goldsboro, Regan graduated from N.C. AT&T University with a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science, and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University. He worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a national program manager, and the Environmental Defense Fund as southeast regional director and national director of energy efficiency, climate and energy policy. Most recently, he founded a consulting firm, M. Regan & Associates.