Four takeaways from Carson's confirmation hearing

Four takeaways from Carson's confirmation hearing
© Greg Nash

Ben Carson, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), spent a few hours in the spotlight Thursday, facing the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee for a confirmation hearing.

The confirmation hearing for the 65-year-old retired neurosurgeon — who in November rejected the idea of serving in the Trump administration because of his lack of experience — lasted about two and a half hours, in direct contrast to other pick such as Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson and Attorney General selection Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSanford: 'It carries real weight' to speak against Trump 'while in office' Medill dean 'deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering' of student journalists Trump has considered firing official who reported whistleblower complaint to Congress: report MORE (R-Ala.), who each faced nearly 12 hours of interrogation.

Here are four takeaways from his time in the hot seat:

On Cabinet picks, Democrats are choosing their battles.

Carson was met with a warm reception on Capitol Hill on Thursday from senators on both sides of the aisle.

Much had been made of his lack of government experience, but that did not translate into tough questions from the panel.

In fact, one panel Republican even joked about it.

“There was a concern that you’re not a housing expert,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). But “it seems to me that running this department is not exactly brain surgery.”

Republicans and Democrats alike primarily asked Carson to expand on things they had already discussed in private meetings prior to the hearing and the content of his opening remarks, which were delivered off the cuff instead of from the prepared text.

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Some senators asked him to opine on his vision for HUD, but few pressed with follow-up questions about the feasibility of implementation.

“This is going to be a really great committee to work with,” Carson said after a friendly back-and-forth with Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (D-N.D.) that illustrated the tone of the hearing.

When asked about problems including homelessness and poverty, housing on Indian reservations, preventing discrimination against LGBT individuals and minorities, Carson agreed to work on them without delving into specific details.

For example, when pressed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) about whether he would enforce LGBT protections in the public housing sector, Carson said simply, “Of course, I would enforce all the laws of the land.”

The toughest inquiries came on how he might deal with potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s business interests, which will be turned over to his adult sons during his term.

Carson said that he would help work on a plan to mitigate any conflict of interest and that he would report to the committee should issues arise.

He seemed to retreat from some his past controversial statements -- including on issues such as supporting across-the-board cuts on funding and regulations -- though he was not pressed hard by lawmakers. 

Brown addressed the conflicting statements while kicking off his line of questioning.

“I appreciate many of the goals and ideas you expressed. Some, however, as I think you know by now are inconsistent with statements you’ve made over the past few years,” Brown said.
 
“If confirmed, I think you understand you’ll be held to the ideas you’ve expressed today, not ones necessarily you may have written about or talked about in a presidential race."

There were two other confirmation hearings in the Senate at the same time as Carson’s: retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the pick for Defense secretary, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), selected to head the CIA, were both in the spotlight. As a result, many senators were absent for parts of Carson’s hearing and one, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the former chairman of the Banking panel, opted to submit his questions to the record, rather than ask them aloud. 

“I want to do everything we can to expedite this nomination,” Shelby said.

Regulatory repeal will play a big role in the Trump administration.

Carson could consider rolling back an Obama administration rule aimed at ensuring that a law banning housing discrimination is enforced, tapping into the president-elect’s campaign promise to make slashing regulations a “cornerstone” of his administration.

He dodged several questions about whether he would uphold the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, only saying that he would commit himself to ensuring fair housing.

The rule requires those receiving a specific kind of HUD grant to generate data related to housing occupancy by various factors, including race and income level. Then, those same cities or regions must prove they are addressing inequality issues.

"They’re not responding to people saying there’s a problem; they’re saying go and look for a problem and give us a solution," Carson said.

"I don't have any kind of problem with affirmative action or at least integration, but I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they have no idea what’s going on," he added, citing "people sitting around a desk in Washington, D.C." 

However, the regulation actually tasks communities with finding and fixing the inequality themselves.

While running for president, Carson called the fair housing actions during President Obama's tenure a “mandated social-engineering scheme.”

“There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote in a Washington Times op-ed in 2015.

But Carson told the committee Thursday that those comments were taken out of context and misconstrued.

Overall, it appears his views on regulations generally fall in line with the president-elect’s.

The view that the government imposes burdensome regulations may present a particular dilemma for Carson in the form of HUD’s recent smoking ban for public housing.

As a doctor, Carson is aware of the dangers of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. But he declined to detail his take on the smoking ban when asked by The Hill on Thursday.

“Once I’m confirmed, we will talk about it,” he said.

In prepared remarks to the committee, Carson suggested he would toe Trump’s line when it comes to regulatory policy.

“Trump has talked about the importance of deregulation. That applies to housing as well,” he said.

Could Trump’s real estate interests cause issues for Carson?

Trump’s real estate interests could cause problems for Carson as he sets out to reform HUD.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE (D-Mass.) grilled Carson over Trump’s real estate affairs, followed by Brown pointing out that the president-elect has a financial interest in at least one low-income housing development — Starrett City in New York City.

“Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?” Warren asked.

Carson promised to not “play favorites” with contracting opportunities for HUD’s low-income housing projects. But he would not rule out working with a company that is connected to Trump.

“I can assure you that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values,” he said. “It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit [Trump]."

Warren shot back: “Do I take that to mean you may manage programs that will significantly benefit the president-elect?”

“You can take it to mean that I will manage things in a way that benefits the American people. That is going to be the goal,” Carson said.

“If there happens to be an extraordinary program that’s working for millions of people, and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to gain $10 from it, am I going to say, ‘No, the rest of you Americans can’t have it?’ ” he continued. “I think logic and common sense probably would be the best way.”

“The problem is that you can’t assure us that HUD money, not of $10 varieties, but of multimillion-dollar varieties, will not end up in the president-elect’s pockets,” Warren responded in perhaps the sharpest exchange of the day.

That’s because “the president-elect is hiding his family’s business interests from you, from me, from the rest of America,” she added.

When pressed by Brown on whether he’d report back to the committee on any potential “issue that should arise on a property … owned by Mr. Trump or his family,” Carson said he’d be “more than delighted” to do so and said he’d work with the committee to set up set up a process to identify such conflicts.

He has sweeping desires to change the agency.

HUD is a $48 billion agency, with roughly 8,000 employees. Carson spoke repeatedly during his hearing about sweeping changes at the department in charge of affordable housing and anti-poverty programs from a more “holistic” angle.

"The reason that I concentrate so much on the holistic approach, when I look back on an agency like HUD, is that it has programs targeted at specific problems. It has seen progress, but the progress has not been as great as one would like to see," Carson said.

"One of the things that I discovered as a neurosurgeon, you’re much more effective when you bring in a bigger-picture view of things. Instead of looking at a tumor someone has in their brain, [consider] ... how can you bring health to this entire individual … and put them in an environment where they can thrive."

"That’s the same here," he continued.

Carson then said he wanted to place a larger emphasis on healthcare — for example, putting more clinics into neighborhoods so people don’t have to pay high out-of-pocket costs at an emergency room.

"That’s what I’m talking about by a holistic approach — it saves us so much money," he said, though HUD would be unlikely to have a say in healthcare policy plans.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked Carson to commit to advocating for a robust budget for HUD.

Carson said he would, though during the campaign he talked about wanting to cut the budget at all federal agencies.

"I don’t know what that [budget] number is. … It might be more, it might be less, but it will be what is required to do what we need to do," he said.

Carson also said that he would seek to bring down the cost of building and renovating affordable housing, among other costs borne by the agency, by engaging private companies in partnerships.

He acknowledged that there would have to be an incentive for businesses to participate, but he did not elaborate on what those types of incentives might be.