President Donald Trump’s surprise nomination of Texas native and White House physician Ronny Jackson to be secretary of the Veterans Administration has set off a murmuring campaign about his qualifications to lead the agency, making him the latest Trump administration nominee from the Lone Star State to run into controversy.
A half-dozen Texas nominees for senior posts or federal judgeships await Senate action who, for a variety of reasons, have had their nominations stalled or opposed by Democrats. A few faced so much opposition they withdrew altogether, including Kathleen Hartnett White, a former top Texas environmental official nominated to chair the Council on Environmental Quality.
Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who was nominated to be an assistant secretary of the Department of Interior last July, has been waiting so long for Senate confirmation that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has decided to appoint her to oversee the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and national parks on an interim basis, as first reported Thursday by the American-Statesman.
Combs was renominated in January after she failed to get full Senate approval, and leaders did not carry her nomination over into 2018. As Texas comptroller, she clashed often with the Fish and Wildlife Service over restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act, which she viewed as an impediment to business development.
As a Trump nominee, Combs had the support of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — which approved her in January, as it had in August — but was caught in a logjam of other environmental nominees. Combs is still waiting for approval by the Senate.
The Senate did act quickly last week on one nominee — Judge Edward Prado of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to be ambassador to Argentina. Prado was approved by the Senate on March 22 after having been nominated in January.
Prado’s quick approval paves the way for the administration’s nominee to fill the Texas seat on the powerful 5th Circuit: Andy Oldham, Gov. Greg Abbott’s general counsel and one of his favorites. Abbott played an unusually active role in promoting Oldham for the court — a perk usually limited to U.S. senators.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also a Texan, had influence in selecting ambassadorships before he was fired in mid-March.
“It’s a Texas cabal,” quipped Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who monitors judicial vacancies. “It’s not a typical move for a judge to go off to be ambassador, but it opens the seat.”
Prado, 70, of San Antonio, speaks Spanish fluently and was a federal district judge before being named to the appellate court by President George W. Bush.
Trump nominated Oldham in February to the 5th Circuit.
Jackson, a native of Levelland, which is outside of Lubbock, has degrees from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He serves in the Navy as an emergency medicine physician. An Iraq War veteran, he holds the rank of rear admiral but is already coming under fire as critics question his experience in being able to manage the nation’s second-largest federal agency with 360,000 employees. Jackson was nominated immediately after Trump fired VA chief David Shulkin after an internal report found he had taken an expensive European work trip as, effectively, a vacation.
The attention — and pressure — is now on Jackson.
“Nobody really knows who is he. Is he an empty vessel? Does he have strong views on privatization or reforming the VA?” asked Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, on CNN.
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Another Texas doctor who withstood some tough scrutiny, Brett Giroir, a former CEO of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center, was finally confirmed by the Senate in early February after having been nominated in May to be assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. He, too, had to be renominated by the president in January after he ran into resistance from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who did not think he would be supportive of women’s health issues and funding for Planned Parenthood.
Criticizing the delay, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee, said, “It is bewildering that Americans were forced to wait nearly nine months for confirmation of this critical and qualified nominee, as Senate Democrats filibuster nearly every one of the president’s nominees — and while Americans face a deadly flu outbreak and our communities struggle to cope with an opioid abuse crisis.”
Meanwhile, Austin native Brian D. Montgomery, a former housing official in the George W. Bush administration, is still waiting for a Senate vote. Montgomery was nominated last year to be an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the same job he held before, and was backed by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
But Montgomery ran into criticism from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who questioned his closeness to the financial industry. He was not approved by the Senate last year and, like Combs, had to be renominated in January.
READ: Texan gets panel’s nod for federal judge post over Democrats’ objections
Two other Texas nominees who didn’t make it through the process last year and were renominated in January are:
• Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, deputy general counsel to the Plano-based First Liberty Institute, to be U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Texas, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in January after a divisive party-line vote despite his alleged anti-LGBT bias.
• James E. Trainor III, a partner in the Austin office of Akerman LLP, was nominated to be a member of the Federal Election Commission for a term expiring April 30, 2023. He has not had a confirmation hearing yet even though he has experience working in the Trump administration. Last year, he briefly worked for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on a temporary assignment.