US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Alexander: Surgeon General’s Office Shouldn’t be “Bully Pulpit” for Obamacare, Gun Control

Encourages focus on obesity by President Obama’s nominee

Tuesday, February 04, 2014Liz Wolgemuth 202-228-4729

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“I would hope you know that Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate the Second Amendment or any other amendment, and the Second Amendment is not a special interest group – it’s part of our Constitution.” – Lamar Alexander

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the lead Republican on the Senate health committee, today pressed President Obama’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, on whether he would use the “bully pulpit” as “the nation’s doctor” to advance his ideological goals in favor of Obamacare and gun control.

“My concern is much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential,” Alexander said in his opening statement in a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Alexander praised Murthy’s stated intention of making childhood obesity his priority as surgeon general.

The senator noted that the surgeon general heads the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council, and is traditionally a doctor with extensive experience in public health and leading organizations. Murthy is co-founder and president of “Doctors for America” a group that has worked primarily to support Obamacare and prevent gun violence.

Of Murthy’s advocacy for Obamacare, Alexander said, “Much of your work has been devoted to electing the current president and advocating the new health care law … I’d be reluctant to put into the surgeon general’s office someone who would use that as a bully pulpit to promote a law I think is an historic mistake.”

The senator also noted that Murthy is an advocate of gun control, once saying on the social media website Twitter that he was “tired of politicians…[who are] scared of the NRA.” Alexander said, “I would hope you know that Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate the Second Amendment or any other amendment, and the Second Amendment is not a special interest group – it’s part of our Constitution.” 

The senator later pressed Murthy on Obamacare and gun control, asking in follow-up questions whether he would use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit on either issue. Murthy responded that he would not, but restated his position on those issues and their importance.

The senator’s full opening statement follows:

Dr. Murthy, congratulations on your nomination. Thanks, Mr. Chairman. Welcome to you, welcome to your family members who are here. I enjoyed our visit in the office the other day.

If you are confirmed as surgeon general, you will oversee the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps of more than 6,800 uniformed officers. You’ll also chair the National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council. You’ll be the “nation’s doctor,” as the position has come to be called.

My late friend Alex Haley used to encourage me to find the good and praise it, and that’s not hard to do in your case.

I would start with your identification of obesity, specifically childhood obesity, as a priority and your determination as expressed to me to make that a priority, if not the priority, of your time as surgeon general. That would seem to me a very valuable use of what has come to be regarded as an important bully pulpit.

I don’t need to go into the details about how pervasive obesity has become. Approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 are obese. That’s just too many. I’ve seen too many examples of the increasing cases of Type 2 diabetes in younger and younger children as they go along.

So that’s on the positive side of the ledger On the other side of the ledger, I have a couple of concerns.

There is no doubt you are a highly intelligent, highly motivated person. And my first concern is much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential. Much of your work has been devoted to electing the current president and advocating the new health care law, all of which is your perfect right to do as an American citizen. But as a public official, if that becomes your principal purpose of the bully pulpit, that gets to be a problem.

There are, at least, a large number of Americans and many in the Congress who disagree with the wisdom of that law, who know that more than 5 million Americans in the individual market lost their health care coverage as a result of it, and who are concerned about the small number of uninsured people who have actually been insured by it.

In other words, we wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, count it as a success, and I’d be reluctant to put into the surgeon general’s office someone who would use that as a bully pulpit to promote a law I think is an historic mistake.

The second concern I have along the same line, is about your comments about guns, saying that politicians, in your tweets of October 16, 2012, “Tired of politicians … [who are] scared of the NRA.” Those are some of the words. And I would hope you know that Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate the Second Amendment or any other amendment, and the Second Amendment is not a special interest group – it’s part of our Constitution. 

And again, if your goal is to make guns the bully pulpit of your advocacy in the surgeon general’s office, that would concern me.

The second major area of concern that I’ll look forward to learning more about has to do with experience.

I would like to ask permission to include in the record a letter from the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, Richard Carmona, who wrote the president about your pending appointment.

[Sen. Harkin: No objection]

Thank you and the letter can speak for itself. Dr. Carmona says, “I don’t know the potential nominee that the press has reported on. However, it appears he is a smart motivated physician, very early in his career with great potential but no significant related leadership experience and no formal public health training or experience.” He talks about how the general tradition of surgeons general has been to select someone who has the credentials that he suggests you do not have.

So while I admire your academic record, your passion and your focus on obesity, I have questions about the matters that I mentioned. I’m glad you’re here, and I look forward to listening carefully to your answers.

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