When CMS Director’s Post Opens–Again–Will Obama Step Up?
When Marilyn Tavenner steps down as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this month, one of the federal government’s most powerful positions will once again come open. History and President Barack Obama’s actions toward the post suggest that finding a replacement might prove difficult.
Before Ms. Tavenner was confirmed in May 2013, CMS had gone without a permanent, Senate-confirmed administrator for nearly seven years—since Mark McClellan left the agency in the fall of 2006. The Bush administration nominated Kerry Weems, a career civil servant, to replace Mr. McClellan; Mr. Weems received a polite hearing from the Senate Finance Committee in July 2007, but a CMS policy memo issued shortly afterward regarding the Children’s Health Insurance Program angered Senate Democrats. The committee’s chairman, Max Baucus (D., Mont.), refused to bring the nomination to a vote, and Mr. Weems served as acting administrator for the rest of the Bush administration.
Upon taking office, President Obama waited nearly 15 months—until his health-care legislation was passed—to nominate Don Berwick to run the agency that would oversee much of the law’s implementation. Mr. Berwick’s history of writings proved so inflammatory that Democrats, despite having an overwhelming Senate majority, refused to advance his nomination. Mr. Berwick received a controversial recess appointment from President Obama in July 2010 but was forced to leave CMS in December 2011 when his temporary appointment expired because the Senate had not voted on his confirmation.
While serving in the Senate in 2007-08, Mr. Obama stood by as Sen. Baucus and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) put Mr. Weems’s confirmation on ice. And as president, Mr. Obama failed to demand a vote from his fellow Democrats when they decided not to advance Mr. Berwick’s nomination, likely seeking to spare vulnerable incumbents from taking a position on a nominee with a controversial record. Given the president’s history of remaining quiet about a Democratic Senate not confirming CMS nominees, he has little standing to complain should the Republican-controlled Senate choose not to advance his choice to succeed Ms. Tavenner.
Even before Obamacare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had a budget larger than that of the Pentagon; since the law passed, its subsidies, regulations, or both affect the insurance of basically every American with health coverage. The CMS administrator’s job is critical. But President Obama’s actions have contributed to a lack of permanent leadership in CMS for most of the past eight years. We’ll see whether that pattern persists after Ms. Tavenner departs.
This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.