President-elect Joe Biden has said he’ll build an administration that “looks like America,” but Asian American lawmakers aren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen of his Cabinet so far.
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) is urging Biden to increase the Asian American and Pacific Islander representation among Cabinet appointees, a push that the group has been mounting for weeks.
Thus far, Biden has nominated Neera Tanden — who is the president of the Center for American Progress and is of Indian descent — as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is also of both Jamaican and Indian descent.
Previous administrations have had more AAPI representation among Cabinet appointees (though there are many roles Biden has yet to announce): The Obama administration had three AAPI Cabinet secretaries, while the Trump administration had two Cabinet appointees.
“It is vital that those in the highest positions in the executive branch of government reflect the great diversity of our nation, and that includes the selection of AAPIs for Cabinet positions,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), the first vice chair of CAPAC, told Vox in a statement. “The Biden administration should not go backwards. It should be more diverse and inclusive than past administrations, not less.”
When asked by Politico about AAPI inclusion so far, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also expressed dismay. “Frankly, it feels extremely disrespectful to the AAPI community,” she said.
Uncertainty about Tanden’s confirmation has raised concerns, too. If Tanden is not confirmed for the OMB role, due to the pushback she’s faced from Senate Republicans, it’s possible there could be no AAPI Cabinet-level appointees barring new nominations from Biden, CAPAC Chair Judy Chu told Politico. That would make Biden’s Cabinet the first in roughly two decades that wouldn’t have an AAPI appointee.
Biden, however, still has several outstanding positions to fill and more nominations to announce. He has also stressed that he is prioritizing diversity as these decisions are being made; so far, half of his Cabinet picks have been people of color, including Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary, Cecilia Rouse for chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Linda Thomas-Greenfield for United Nations ambassador, and Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary.
“When it’s all over, people will take a look and say, I promise you, you’ll see the most diverse Cabinet, representative of all folks, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board,” Biden said in CNN interview last week.
There are still a number of Cabinet roles that have yet to be announced
Candidates for some of the open Cabinet roles were mentioned during a meeting between CAPAC and members of the transition team on Monday, a source familiar with the matter told Vox.
Individuals that CAPAC lawmakers highlighted included House Ways and Means Trade Counsel Katherine Tai, who’s seen as a leading contender for the US trade representative role; California Labor Secretary Julie Su, who’s been floated as a possibility for labor secretary; and former Obama administration Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu, who was suggested for a senior White House adviser job.
Additionally Chu and Jayapal have pushed for surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy’s position to be treated as a Cabinet-level post, both to increase AAPI representation and to add more public health expertise. (Currently, Murthy’s role would be housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than reporting directly to the president.) The source familiar with the meeting noted that the transition team signaled this was unlikely to happen.
Lawmakers across many races and backgrounds have called on the Biden transition team to increase representation in the Cabinet, as candidates for more positions — including attorney general, agriculture secretary, labor secretary, and transportation secretary — are named.
Asian American leaders have stated that they simply want more perspectives to be included in the open roles, and for the support from Asian American voters, a majority of whom backed Biden, to be acknowledged. Often, Asian Americans are left out of conversations about a range of policies — including immigration — the source told Vox. There have also been concerns that there were no AAPI co-chairs on Biden’s transition and inauguration efforts.
In addition to its push for Cabinet spots, CAPAC plans to continue advocating for more AAPI candidates to be considered for other White House staffing roles and federal judiciary appointments. In a letter that the group sent to Biden this past November, members emphasized that they’d like to see at least 7 percent of the White House Cabinet and other appointed personnel be AAPI, given that those who identify as AAPI comprise 7 percent of the US population.
“In order to ensure your administration is filled with appointees who truly reflect the strength and diversity of our nation, we urge you to continue this trend of appointing AAPI candidates to the Cabinet and prioritizing AAPI representation throughout your administration,” CAPAC members wrote in the letter.