Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bill Corr Should Have Refused HHS Nomination; Do We Really Want Someone Who Lobbied for Philip Morris-Negotiated Legislation Running the Department?

An article published last week in the Wall Street Journal questions whether the nomination of a former lobbyist for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - Bill Corr - violates the Obama Administration's policy of not allowing former lobbyists (within 2 years) to work in areas related to those on which they lobbied.

Although Corr lobbied for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids on tobacco issues, which represent a huge part of the work of the Health and Human Services (HHS) department, he was nominated and recently approved for the position of deputy secretary for the department, the number two position in HHS.

According to the article: "President Barack Obama says lobbyists won't run his administration, but he picked an antitobacco lobbyist with ties to the pharmaceutical industry as the No. 2 official at the Department of Health and Human Services. The nomination of William Corr -- former executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, where he was a registered lobbyist until September -- highlights the murkiness of Mr. Obama's antilobbyist policy. Mr. Obama requires employees to sign a pledge stating they will not "participate in any particular matter on which I lobbied within the two years before the date of my appointment." Those rules prohibit Mr. Corr from working on tobacco issues, the White House says."

The article also questions whether Corr's ties to the pharmaceutical industry - the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids received millions of dollars from Big Pharma - will interfere with his ability to be fair in formulating policy.

Jacob Grier over at Liquidity Preference notes that Corr's ties to Big Pharma could be significant, as the FDA, which is under HHS, will soon decide the fate of electronic cigarettes, which are making a great public health contribution but represent a threat to Big Pharma profits:

"There is, however, a real conflict of interest here. As discussed previously on this blog, the FDA will likely soon take a very active role in tobacco regulation and is in the process of banning electronic cigarettes. There is no evidence whatsoever that the latter are harmful to anyone — anyone except pharmaceutical companies, that is. They have become an increasingly popular alternative to patches and gums for people looking to quit smoking. It’s legitimate to ask if Corr should be involved in their regulation given his ties to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which receives funding from pharmaceutical companies and has publicly supported the e-cigarette ban. I have no reason to doubt that Corr will be a perfectly sincere regulator; if anything, I am worried that he will be an excessively zealous one. But he should be held to the same standard as other nominees, not given a free pass because he happened to be a lobbyist for a politically correct cause."

The Rest of the Story

Two aspects of this story have been largely overlooked.

First, do we really want the number 2 person in an agency to be someone who has to recuse himself from just about every major decision that the agency makes. Tobacco is such an important contributor to disease that it is difficult to find a health issue that does not involve, in some way, the issue of tobacco.

While Corr may be able to skirt around the lobbyist policy by arguing that he will recuse himself from tobacco issues, by doing that, he is essentially destroying his own qualifications for the position.

If the HHS deputy secretary were a regular position for which applicants interviewed, how likely would a candidate be to get hired if he said that he was a great candidate for the job, but wouldn't be able to participate in any agency business regarding tobacco?

It's kind of like hiring the head of a Social Services agency who states that he cannot take part in any decisions related to welfare. Well then, what's the point of hiring that person? In fact, that person becomes very unqualified for the position, it seems to me.

Another salient question which has largely been overlooked is whether or not we really want a former lobbyist who pushed for Philip Morris legislation to be leading the nation's chief health agency.

I think lobbying for Philip Morris legislation within two years should definitely be a disqualification for serving as a leader in a federal health agency.

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